The Southern Miss Golden Eagle baseball team will start its season this weekend against Stony Brook at Pete Taylor Park in a three-game series.
Southern Miss is coming off a disappointing season in which they were ousted in the Conference USA Championship game against Rice. In the 11th inning of the title game, Rice left fielder Keenan Cook stroked an RBI single to give Rice an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship while ending USM’s season.
USM is going to look like a much different team when they take the field on Valentine’s Day as many contributors from a year ago were lost to graduation. Usually in a case like this, a youth movement will take place, but Southern Miss took a different route this offseason, signing several junior college transfers to fill in.
“We have a lot of new guys, (but) it’s a lot of old guys because we had a lot of JUCO transfers,” said junior outfielder Mason Robbins. “We’re a much older team. We have a lot more experience.”
Robbins led the team with 40 RBI’s last season and was selected to the Conference USA second-team. The former freshman All-American and New York Mets’ draft pick will look to continue to be a consistent force for the Golden Eagle lineup.
One of the junior college transfers to look out for is Matt Durst, who is an Evan Gattis look alike according to Robbins. Durst hit six homeruns last season for Northeast Texas Community College and USM is counting on his presence in the lineup.
“He’s really swung the bat well and brings us that leadership behind the plate that you have to have,” said Southern Miss head coach Scott Berry.
Southern Miss is hoping that their experience will carry them to their main goal, which is the NCAA Regionals. Before they can do that, they’re going to have beat Rice, who kept them from reaching their goal a season ago.
“I’ve been here for five years and we’ve only taken one (of three games) from them every year,” said senior pitcher Jay Myrick. “I’m looking forward to this year, playing against Rice and trying to take two of three from them.”
After defeating Southern Miss, Rice made it all the way to the Super Regionals before being ousted by North Carolina State. Rice is not the only tough opponent USM will face this season though.
Their schedule also has two ranked SEC powerhouses on it with LSU and Florida. Both games will be played at neutral sites. USM will play LSU at Zephyr Field in New Orleans and will play Florida at Bayfront Stadium in Pensacola, Fla.
While the schedule may be tough, USM has revamped itself with added talent and experience and is poised to have a successful season.
“Our goal is the regionals, but if we make it to the regional, we can go farther,” Myrick said. “I feel like as a team, the sky is the limit basically.”
If the team is going to make a deep run in the postseason, it will need junior centerfielder Connor Barron to stay healthy. Barron is one of the most talented players in the country, as evidenced by being selected in the third round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Miami Marlins, but has struggled to stay on the field.
“This is the healthiest he’s ever been since he’s been here and it shows in the way he played this fall,” Berry said. “I’m very excited about seeing him in centerfield.”
Things are certainly shaping up for the Golden Eagles to be a top team in Conference USA this season, but they will need a little help. According to the players, one of the things they want this season is to see more students in the stands of Pete Taylor Park.
“It’s a fun experience and we have a really good team this year. They should come out and watch us,” Robbins said. “If you have a packed house, that’s a fun baseball game. If there isn’t anybody here, that’s no fun to play in front of.”
The first pitch of the season will be thrown Friday at 4 p.m. Right hander Cameron Giannini will take the mound for Southern Miss in Friday’s matchup.