Big names like Jake Burger -- who has done his best to follow up his 2016 home run crown -- and Brent Rooker -- who has made the SEC his personal playground -- have lived up to their billing this season.
Meanwhile, lesser known Ben Fisher and Niko Hulsizer have made the Ohio Valley Conference the premier home run launching pad in 2017.
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Hulsizer, who hits the long ball for Morehead State, and Fisher, who hails from Eastern Kentucky are first and second, respectively, atop the home run leaderboard for Division I. It may come as a surprise to most, considering the two combined for just 13 home runs last season.
How did Hulsizer and Fisher rise to the top, becoming two of the most feared hitters in the land?
While Hulsizer enjoyed an outstanding freshman debut, he has been simply remarkable in his sophomore campaign. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hulsizer is one of the elite sluggers in DI. The 6-foot-1, right-handed bat once slugged one out of Yankee Stadium.
“I got to play there my [high school] junior summer,” Hulsizer said. “It was just one day, but we got to play all day. I just got lucky and hit a home run today. I’ll always remember that. Such a memorable time, playing on a big league field like that.”
Despite his Yankee Stadium memories, Hulsizer grew up a fan of their rival — the Boston Red Sox. He models his game after Mookie Betts, a player who he hopes to be as well rounded as before his playing days are through.
Last season, Hulsizer was able to put up solid numbers in just 25 starts. He hit .345 with nine doubles and five home runs. His 2017 numbers dwarf those.
Through this past weekend, Hulsizer is now hitting .367 with 20 doubles and an NCAA-best 24 home runs, all while getting on base at a .453 lick.
“I think the difference is I’m more confident,” Hulsizer said. “Also, getting more at bats at this level. Summer ball helped a lot. Seeing a lot more college pitching, and good pitching everyday. Once I realized I could compete with these guys, I really settled in. Then my coaches helped me out with a better approach.
“I’m not trying to hit home runs. I’m wondering if it’s ever going to stop. I’ve never been a guy who hits home runs like this. But I just try to hit the ball as hard as I can, whether it’s on the ground or in the air. I’ve just been hitting them in the air and they’ve been going over the fence.”
Hulsizer isn’t alone. He bats second in a lineup that finds itself amongst DI’s leaders in several categories. The Eagles are in the top ten in DI in batting average (.336), doubles (124), home runs (75), runs (an NCAA-best 471), scoring (also an NCAA-best 9.2 runs-per-game) and slugging percentage (.533). Eli Boggess, the Eagles cleanup hitter, is currently first in DI in batting average, hitting .428.
“It helps a lot with the confidence level,” Hulsizer said. “You got guys in front of you and behind you that can hit all the time, that are always producing. It helps me get better pitches as well, because they can’t pitch to all three of us. The guy that’s hitting behind me is hitting .400 and the guy behind him is hitting .430. You got to pitch to one of us.”
This week, the Eagles finish their regular season on a Tennessee road trip. First, a Tuesday matchup with the Volunteers, and then a season-ending series against Tennessee Tech. Tennessee Tech is currently first in the OVC, with Morehead State not far behind. It could be the perfect way to send a message heading into the postseason.
“We definitely wanted to finish at the top of the league,” Hulsizer said. “We’re happy with how we played this year. This coming week is really big for us. We’re focused on Tuesday against Tennessee, but we are looking forward to this coming weekend, playing those guys [Tennessee Tech]. They are great competition going into the tournament.”
Fisher, from Eastern Kentucky, is having a season like no other in his four-year career — much like Hulsizer. Though the Biology major graduated this past weekend, Fisher certainly ended his tenure with a bang.
23 of them so far, to be precise.
Through Sunday’s action, he’s hitting .358 with a program single-season record 23 home runs, one off Hulsizer’s DI lead. Fisher has added 14 doubles and 66 RBI. That’s quite the improvement from his junior season, one which saw him hit .288 with eight home runs.
“The biggest difference in this year has been my approach at the plate,” Fisher said. “I have learned to be more aggressive to pitches that I can handle and I am just an overall more disciplined hitter this year. I attribute a lot of my success to Coach Thompson and my other coaches who have helped me with my approach so much over the past two years.”
The team saw Fisher make Colonels history on May 10. While he tied Hulsizer for the DI lead, he also tied Kyle Nowlin’s program single-season home run mark. Though it was a losing effort, it was something the EKU slugger won’t soon forget.
“It means so much to be in the record books here at EKU for the program that I love,” Fisher said. “I have been truly blessed with the opportunity and talent to be able to play here. The at-bat itself was awesome because it brought us back from down one to being up one run. In the moment it was awesome but obviously, because we ended up not holding the lead, it was somewhat bittersweet.”
The Colonels have fought through a disappointing season. Most of the offensive burden has fallen on the shoulders of the left-handed slugging first baseman, as well as senior outfielder Shea Sullivan and sophomore Alex Holderbach.
That hasn’t changed Fisher’s approach at the plate one bit.
“I don't try to hit a home run every at-bat, but I do try to hit the ball hard,” Fisher said. “With being a more disciplined hitter, I am able to look for pitches that I can do just that and it just so happens a lot have gone out for me this year.”
Fisher’s four-years in an EKU uniform may not have produced a trophy case full of tournament wins. That hasn’t changed things for Fisher’s love of his program. The home run masher, having an historic season, has certainly left behind a legacy for the next generaton of Colonels as he chases Holsizer for the 2017 home run title.
“As my playing days wrap up at EKU, I want to be remembered as someone who impacted people,” Fisher said. “Records and stats are great, but they fade. This program has meant so much to me and I just hope that, after my four years, I have left it in a better place than when I got here and that people remember me, not only for who I was as a player but as a person, too.”