After missing out on a NCAA Regional last year, Southern Miss is looking at a season of redemption.
Their motto is “start fast,” but coach Scott Berry put a spin on the year-old saying to motivate his team just a bit more.
“Start faster, and continue to finish strong,” Berry said. “It’s just simple the game-by-game approach.”
USM will open their season this Friday in a three-game slate against Eastern Illinois. Although the Panthers are not a prime candidate that Southern Miss will be waiting to play, they are not taking any opponent lightly.
“This team, we realize what we got to do is [focus on] on one game at a time,” said junior Dylan Burdeaux. “Every game is magnified.”
Last season, USM was able to rely on the leadership of seniors Cord Cockrell, Connor Barron, Matt Durst and James McMahon among others, when things got sour for the team. Their leadership carved the path for the team this season, as the roster is stacked with 13 players in their last year of eligibility themselves.
“Certainly, they have to follow what [the veterans] did,” Berry said. “That’s get out their number one [skills], trust their stuff and compete.”
One example of things becoming sour was the Oakland series. No matter which player you ask, they will always refer to the Oakland series as the pivotal turning point of the season.
In that series last year from March 6-8, the Golden Eagles dropped two out of three games at home. Oakland was not the caliber of Southern Miss at the time, and the Golden Eagles seemed to have taken their counterparts a little too lightly.
“Us dropping that series against Oakland kind of [messed] us up later on,” said junior catcher Chuckie Robinson. “I think we just need to focus on what’s at hand and not trying to downplay our competitors.”
After that series, the Golden Eagles did not seem to get it together. They went on to alternate wins and losses against Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State and UAB. Southern Miss finally got it together on March 26, when they reeled off 13 straight wins starting with the first one against UTSA.
“Every game really does matter,” said sophomore pitcher Kirk McCarty. “In the long run, every single inning, every out, every pitch, everything comes down to that final goal. Are you going to be in the Regional or not?”
This year, Southern Miss will have a bevy of opponents that they will be able to get up for. USM will face opponents such as Michigan State, Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss and Rice. Those opponents are certainly nothing to scoff at, and should be taken very seriously for SouthernMiss.
USM should be prepared for those opponents, as they went 5-0 against SEC competition. The Golden Eagles are not afraid of the spotlight, and they should be well-prepared for it when the time comes.
“We know those SEC games are big,” Burdeaux said. “We get up for those games and we talked about this year, you got to get up for every game.”
This team will have two strengths: Pitching and experience. The Golden Eagles return six pitchers with USM experience on the mound, and will have that rotation combined with a bullpen with several transfers and freshman. Although USM will lose a huge arm in James McMahon, C Spire Ferriss Trophy award winner, they will have plenty of players who can hopefully fill in his shoes to be the next USM great on the mound.
“We’ve got to have those guys that when they take that mound, they have that respect of their teammates,” Berry said. “We’re pitcher-heavy in numbers than position players, in all honesty. We have to have some guys who are capable of playing different positions.”
Southern Miss should finish around 43-13 this season. USM should make it back to the Regional for the first time since the 2011 season. They will have to rely on the contributions of reliable hitters such as Tim Lynch, who was a first-team All-Conference USA preseason pick, and junior infielder Dylan Burdeaux who batted a .283 with four homers and 28 RBIs. Not to be outdone, Southern Miss will return leading batter Tim Lynch, who averaged a .313, nine home runs and 32 RBIs.
The lasting thing that cannot be put down on a stat sheet is the camaraderie off this team. This team has proven that it will stick together through the ups and the downs, and they look to be focused on one goal.
“I really haven’t set any goals, which I don’t know is a good time,” Robinson said. “I just want to go out there and have a good time with my teammates, my brothers and just play as best as I can.”
With all of the experience intact for the Golden Eagles season, redemption may be the calling.
“Whenever we step on the field Friday night we just have to be in midseason form already,” McCarty said. “We don’t have any time to waste.”
USM will open up their 2016 season with a three-game slate on Friday against Eastern Illinois at Pete Taylor Field starting at 4 p.m.