After the series sweep at Louisiana Tech this past weekend, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles are building a strong resume to go to another NCAA Regional.
Last year, Southern Miss had hopes of hosting a Regional with a 41-20 record and a C-USA championship. Although those goals are the same this year, they are looking further than just those accolades.
“Our goal every time we come out here is to win a game just to get into Omaha,” said junior pitcher Kirk McCarty. “We truly believe that we can do that. We’re not playing just for a conference championship, not playing just to be in a Regional… we want to make it to Omaha.”
Every team has dreams of making it to the big stage. But, the Golden Eagles feel like that dream is attainable after touting a roster full of offensive firepower (8.35 runs per game) and timely pitching.
“Absolutely,” said sophomore closer Nick Sandlin. “We have enough talent to do it. We’re just going to have to produce when the first pitch is thrown — from start to finish. Everyone on the team can say that Omaha is definitely the goal this year.”
Only eight teams make it each year and Southern Miss believes that they can be one of those select few. Dylan Burdeaux, who starts at first base for the Golden Eagles, has seen his teams miss out on Regionals, and then make it back to Tallahassee last year.
The highest point was last year when his team went to Tallahassee to face South Alabama and Florida State in an NCAA Regional matchup. The lowest points were his freshman and sophomore years when the team won at least 35 games, but missed out on postseason play.
“They all matter,” Burdeaux said. “With this RPI deal to get into the tournament, every game matters just as much as the next one. Just let the chips fall how they may.”
RPI, or Rating Percentage Index, is used to show how strong of a team’s schedule is or how strong their “resume” looks to the committee that selects host sites and teams being able to go to to postseason play. The better the teams Southern Miss plays and defeats, the better their “resume” will be.
Through Mar. 17, Southern Miss sat at No. 68 in RPI, but their C-USA foe that they swept this past weekend, Louisiana Tech, sat at No. 7, so that will be a boost to their hopes. From an inside and outside perspective, every game really does matter.
“We have to take care of business throughout the season,” said Head Coach Scott Berry. “We’ve learned in the past that you have to start fast and finish strong. Even if you start slow and you finish strong, a lot of times, it’s not enough. The focus needs to be on playing good consistent baseball from start to finish. If we can do that and we can take care of our business in conference, I feel like we’ll be rewarded in the end.”
Those rewards do not come without questions.
Coming into the season, the hitting was not looked as a problem. Stouting Burdeaux and third baseman Taylor Braley (11 combined home runs on the year) always helps, but combined with newly-added talents such as Casey Maack and Bryant Bowen, among others, pushes the needle even further along the offensive scale.
“One through nine, we’re pretty solid,” Braley said. “There’s really nobody you can pitch around. We’re solid all the way through.”
But Berry says that getting runs across the plate was never going to be the true challenge. The process of keeping the same runs from going across will be a task in itself.
“The challenge is going to be on the mound,” Berry said. “Three hundred and fifteen innings is a lot of innings that you have to replace. We feel like we have those quality guys. We still have that unknown to us and we’ll have to figure that out.”
Talents such as Cord Cockrell, Jake Winston and Cody Livingston have left the mound and an abundance of unknown names have replaced them. J.C Keys, Stevie Powers and Taylor Braley have all stepped up to take the mantle and Friday starter Kirk McCarty said that if they can be efficient, they will win a lot of games.
“We just want to be efficient,” McCarty said. “Give our hitters a chance to win a game. If we can limit a team to three or four runs, we’re going to win a lot of games with the lineup we have. I’m getting the chills thinking about it.”
It’s not all about the end result, though.
Braley believes that the game is about having fun and not just crossing milestones. Last year, Braley missed most of his sophomore campaign after undergoing surgery on his ACL. This year, he is looking forward to just going out and playing ball — despite high expectations.
Don’t take anything for granted. Just play to the best of your ability and play as hard as you can while you’re playing. Just love the game and play one play at a time.
On paper and sporting a 16-4 record, Southern Miss has all the tools to not just reach last year’s totals, but to actually get to Omaha, Nebraska and face the best of the best.
“I think that this club has a lot of potential,” Berry said. “But, we’ve got to go out and prove it. More importantly, we’ve got to play together and create that chemistry within one another of what our roles are, accept our roles and hold ourselves accountable to that role.”
The Golden Eagles will face in-state rival Mississippi State on Tuesday at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Miss. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m.