Southern Miss Aims To Take Next Step While Meeting New Challenge

Image credit: Scott Berry (Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Getty Images)

In 2021, Mississippi State won the national championship. In 2022, Mississippi won the title. Now, as the pattern goes, 2023 should be Southern Mississippi’s turn to dogpile in Omaha.

Southern Miss coach Scott Berry heard that half-kidding, half-serious line plenty over the course of the offseason. He said both Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis and Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco reached out to him to tell him something along the lines of 2023 being the year of the Golden Eagles.

“But I’m sure they’re going to be trying to get another national championship under their belts,” Berry said.

While Mississippi State and Ole Miss are certainly trying to extend the Magnolia State dynasty themselves, Southern Miss’ own hopes aren’t just down to it being the third-largest school in the state. The Golden Eagles are coming off one of the best seasons in program history, as they went 47-19, won Conference USA and hosted regionals and super regionals. Their bid for a second-ever trip to the College World Series was undone in super regionals by Ole Miss, which swept Southern Miss in Hattiesburg as a part of its remarkable postseason run.

As good as last year was, however, it wasn’t so far above and beyond what the baseline expectation has become for Southern Miss. It has made six straight NCAA Tournament appearances, averaging more than 43 wins per year in that run. Its current streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances is matched by just six other programs—Dallas Baptist, Florida, Florida State, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt. The Golden Eagles have turned into one of the sport’s consistent winners.

The challenge now for Southern Miss is two-fold. One, the Golden Eagles must maintain their level of excellence. That’s not easy, particularly operating, as they do, outside a Power Five conference and the riches that come with membership in one of those leagues. Two, the Golden Eagles want to take the next step and get back to the CWS for the first time since 2009.

In the long run, Southern Miss has built the structure needed for success. It has a vibrant environment at Pete Taylor Park, consistently recruits well and has shown a strong penchant for development under pitching coach Christian Ostrander and hitting coach Travis Creel. This year, it also has moved to the Sun Belt Conference, which projects to be a strong baseball league now and into the future with Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Louisiana, Old Dominion, Southern Miss and Texas State all demonstrating high-end ability in recent seasons. While C-USA was typically a multi-bid league, the Sun Belt looks even stronger and could consistently put at least three or four teams into the NCAA Tournament.

The fans in Hattiesburg have taken note. Southern Miss set a program record with 182,810 fans piling into Pete Taylor Park last year and this year set a program record for season tickets. Berry said the fan support is a testament to the program’s success.

“We’ve been pretty good for a while now and our fans and the support that we have they’ve embraced it, they’ve bought in, and they see it,” he said. “We’re in the entertainment business and I’d like to think we’re entertaining and that’s why they’re buying these tickets and coming, they enjoy watching us play.”

Southern Miss is again putting an entertaining product on the field this season even while it looks to find its footing in the early going. The Golden Eagles are 8-4 and ranked No. 22, but it’s been an up-and-down first few weeks. Southern Miss has sweeps of Liberty and Dallas Baptist, but also lost a home series to Illinois and lost to both Mississippi State and Ole Miss. None of the four losses are bad—the Illini, Bulldogs and Rebels may all be NCAA Tournament teams—but the Golden Eagles gave up at least nine runs in all four games. Southern Miss allowed nine or more runs in a game just four times in all of 2022.

“Obviously, we have a lot of confidence in Christian Ostrander to get those guys right,” Berry said. “Last year was the best staff I was a part of in 38 years as an assistant, as a head coach, I don’t care. That was the most quality and the most depth of quality that I’ve seen in my tenure of coaching at this level.

“It’s going to be hard to duplicate that in all honesty. We’re not saying we can’t. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Measuring this year’s Golden Eagles against last year’s pitching staff is unfair. The 2022 team ranked second in the nation in team ERA (3.29), behind only Tennessee. They were led by All-American righthander Tanner Hall, who went 9-3, 2.81 with 146 strikeouts and 14 walks in 109 innings.

Hall is back to again lead the Golden Eagles’ staff, but there are mostly new faces behind the Preseason All-American. Southern Miss last year had five relievers drafted and lost starters Hunter Riggins, who graduated and signed with the Braves as a free agent, and Hurston Waldrep, a projected 2023 first-round pick who transferred to Florida. In all, the Golden Eagles used 16 pitchers last season. Only five return and they combined for 170 innings—109 of which were thrown by Hall.

With so much new, finding the right mix on the mound was always going to take some time. Southern Miss has settled into a rotation of Hall (2-1, 3.94), fourth-year junior righthander Matthew Adams (1-0, 2.20) and sophomore righthander Niko Mazza (2-1, 2.25), who have done well. Getting more innings out of the trio going forward will be important, but they all delivered quality starts last weekend against DBU.

The bullpen has been more of a work in progress. Redshirt freshman Kros Sivley (1-0, 3.48) has been a multi-inning weapon. Lefthander Justin Storm (0-0, 8.10, 3 SV) blew saves against Illinois and Mississippi State, but bounced back to close out two wins against DBU. Righthander Billy Oldham (1-0, 0.00), a transfer from Eastern Connecticut State, the 2022 Division III national champion, has been good but is currently dealing with shoulder tightness. Righthander Luke Trahan (0-0, 2.84) has been solid in four appearances.

Finding the right combination is going to take some more time.

“We still have to see where we are,” Berry said. “The unknown is still there. And it wasn’t like the unknown wasn’t there last year. But as we got deeper in the season, it became apparent that these guys were really good, and they’d shown it time and time again. We’re still in that unknown phase right now with this team and these new guys we brought in.”

Offensively, Southern Miss has a lot more experience on the roster, as it returned seven regulars in the lineup. But the Golden Eagles are off to a slow start at the plate, hitting .251/.387/.403. DH Slade Wilks (.405/.463/.703), shortstop Dustin Dickerson (.372/.542/.535, 5 SB) and outfielder Matthew Etzel (.291/.328/.382. 6 SB), a junior college transfer, are off to strong starts. But several veterans are slumping early and are pressing as a result.

It’s early and veterans like Christopher Sargent (.116/.216/.256) and Carson Paetow (.217/.357/.413) are likely to eventually find their power swings that led to them combining for 37 home runs a year ago. But with Sun Belt play beginning in a week, there is growing urgency for Southern Miss to kick into gear.

The Golden Eagles face a challenging conference slate in their debut season, starting with a series at Texas State, the 2022 regular season champion, and a series at home against Georgia Southern, which last year hosted regionals. Southern Miss faces trips to Troy (11-1), Old Dominion (12-1) and Coastal Carolina (8-4). It also hosts consistent regional contenders South Alabama (7-6) and Louisiana (7-4).

The Sun Belt will be a new challenge for Southern Miss but the basic goals for the program—and this year’s team—aren’t changing. The Golden Eagles are still looking to build toward Omaha and to put their own stamp on the Magnolia State’s budding college baseball dynasty.

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