It's Wednesday, which means it's time to dip into the mailbag:
How good is Southern Miss? They have a great record and RPI, but they haven't played the toughest schedule. After beating College of Charleston and UConn this weekend, are they close to being a Top 25 team, and do you think they can win Conference USA?
Southern Miss fans take a lot of pride in their program, and they should. It's a very consistent program that has been to eight straight regionals, and it looks primed to extend that run this spring.
The Golden Eagles (15-4) had won seven straight games before losing to Louisiana-Monroe on Tuesday. They made some noise last weekend in Charleston, beating College of Charleston and Connecticut to help knock those two teams out of the Top 25, and winning a 15-inning marathon against Rhode Island. Senior closer Collin Cargill was sensational against URI, working 7 2/3 scoreless innings to pick up the win. Cargill is one of several key veterans performing at a high level this spring—he is 1-0, 0.00 with four saves through nine appearances. Southern Miss has a long tradition of successful submariner closers, and Cargill has been a rock at the back of the bullpen for three years, racking up 13 saves for USM's 2009 Omaha team and nine more as a junior last year.
"He's proved his worth, I can tell you that," Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. "That's certainly who I want to get the ball to late in the game. He's a strike-thrower with tremendous sink from underneath. And he's tough to run on. Historically those guys are usually slow to the plate, but he's extremely quick to the plate, so he takes that stolen base away from you. And he's a good athlete—he's made a couple plays this year on the mound that he wouldn't have made two years ago. We're seeing the benefits of a fifth-year guy who's been in the program."
Veteran leadership helped carry Southern Miss to the College World Series in 2009, and the younger players on that team are now experienced upperclassmen ready to lead another deep run. While Cargill is a dependable anchor at the back of the staff, fellow fifth-year senior righty Todd McInnis (4-1, 3.00 with 34 strikeouts and 10 walks in 30 innings) is equally reliable at the front.
"He is one of the few that has come in as a freshman and been able to dominate on the mound," Berry said. "He's only about 160-165 pounds, but he's 89-91 with four pitches, and his pitchability is certainly very high when he takes the mound every Friday. He'll throw all of his pitches—it doesn't matter what the count is. And he's like a second shortstop on the mound—he may be our best fielder on the team when he's pitching."
All three of USM's weekend starters have consistently pitched deep into games, taking some pressure off the young middle relief corps. Righty Geoffrey Thomas (4-1, 1.60) has dramatically improved his command as a sophomore, and he has the biggest arm on the staff, running his fastball up to 93-94 at times, though he pitches at 89-90. Junior-college transfer Jonathan Thompson (2-0, 4.43) is still adjusting to the Division I level, according to Berry, but he's had some success mixing three pitches and gives the Eagles a chance to win when he's on the mound.
The lineup is anchored by powerful junior shortstop B.A. Vollmuth, who leads the team with seven home runs. Kameron Brunty (.317) and Tyler Koelling (.381) bring athleticism to the top of the lineup. Koelling, the team's leading hitter, has become more patient as a senior, and Berry said he's not missing his pitches.
But as usual, the Golden Eagles excel at doing the small things.
"The key is the ability to handle the bat, which we stress to everybody in the lineup," Berry said. "Every situation, whatever it may be, to be able to sacrifice bunt, hit-and-run, move runners—these are the things that we work on with our kids. If you can't do it, it's going to be hard to be in our lineup. What I want the personality and character of our team to reflect is, whatever's asked of me, whatever my role is at that time, to buy into it and do the best I can do make it happen. I think that's our makeup right now."
That mentality, in addition to the overall experience of the team, makes Southern Miss a strong threat to make a run at the Conference USA title, and maybe even get back to Omaha.
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