After making three straight appearances in the C-USA tournament championship game, Southern Miss came away with its second championship in three years. It is the second time in school history that Southern Miss won both the regular and tournament championships after the team’s 12-3 win over Florida Atlantic on Sunday.
“It’s hard to win a regular season championship back-to-back,” head coach Scott Berry said. “To back it up with a conference tournament championship coming through the loser’s bracket last night after a disappointing loss [then] had to get everything back on board this morning for an early game against a team that is playing well, Charlotte, with a lot of momentum. Our guys responded. It’s hard to do what we just did this doesn’t come around too often.”
Despite the win, Southern Miss faced elimination against Charlotte earlier in the morning. However, the game seemed to be beneficial as the team rallied behind an unforeseen complete game shutout by Mason Strickland. The bats finally found their lost momentum against the 49ers, as the team hit two home runs in the 6-0 win. In nine innings, Strickland allowed just eight hits, one walk and struck out four batters in just 92 pitches.
“He really did a great job,” outfielder Gabe Montenegro said. “Especially since it was very early in the morning and for him to just walk in like that to get the job done, he just did a really good job. It takes pressure off knowing that he is getting the job done.”
The positive momentum carried over against Florida Atlantic in the C-USA championship game as the offense exploded with 12 runs and 15 hits, three of which were home runs.
“Yeah you know I think [hitting] is contagious and that’s exactly what it was,” Berry said. “We had two really good swings on them. I think more than anything, I look at our pitching staff and what they were able to do against this club. It enabled our offense to really relax and get going.”
Adam Jackson took the mound against the Owls and in 2.1 innings he gave up three hits, but was forced to leave the game early due to injury. However, with his start combined Southern Miss’ starting pitchers combined for a 1.06 ERA in the tournament.
Southern Miss jumped to an early 5-0 lead from a two-run home run from Matt Wallner in the first inning and then a two-run home run by Bryant Bowen in the second inning. Another run in the fifth inning scored from an RBI single by Wallner.
Like Southern Miss’ hitting, the bullpen also found sparks from Strickland’s performance. Keller Bradford took the mound to relieve Jackson and put together one of the most solid performances of his season. Bradford’s only mistake happened in the seventh inning when he gave up a three-run home run that cut Southern Miss’ lead to 5-3. Despite the home run, Bradford allowed only the three runs on four hits and struck out two.
Montenegro answered back with a solo home run with Daniel Keating following with an RBI single to put Southern Miss up 7-3 after the seventh inning.
The bats continued to stay hot as Southern Miss put up five runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, starting with an RBI double from Matthew Guidry. Three back-to-back RBI singles followed from Wallner, Hunter Slater and Keating to put the Golden Eagles up 12-3 and seal the win.
Along with Montenegro, Wallner and Nick Sandlin were named to the all-tournament conference team and Strickland was selected as most valuable player of the tournament. The team also earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the third year in a row the team has qualified for the tournament.
“All you can ask of your team is to give themselves an opportunity to win,” Berry said. “And that’s what happened last year we fell short against Rice. This year we worked hard and got ourselves another opportunity at it and we didn’t miss on this one. So you know it’s all about the opportunity and what happens from there is what you do and our guys responded well.”