Southern Miss finished last season with a record of 44-18 and 23-6 in conference play. Former players such as Luke Reynolds and Nick Sandlin led the way, both offensively and defensively. The two standouts helped lead the team into the 40-win range in each of the last three seasons, as they have consistently competed with the best teams in the country. With that being said, the Golden Eagles have some pretty big shoes to fill in order to capitalize off last season’s success.
The question is: who will step up to fill them? Yes, the team did lose some tremendous talents, but there are still veteran leaders and key pieces in the locker room. Senior pitcher and right fielder Matt Wallner is a key returning guy for the team, and his production will help the team tremendously if it carries over from previous years. Wallner earned All-American status in his first two seasons with the team. He has racked up 35 homers and 130 RBIs as a Golden Eagle, and he is currently projected to be a first-round pick in the 2019 MLB draft.
Berry spoke about Wallner during his media day press conference concerning his production from last season and his expectations going forward.
“He’s one of the more exciting players obviously that has come through our program. I think he’s at a point right now where he’s the guy that everybody surrounds themselves with. Luke Reynolds last year, I don’t think I really saw that,” Berry said. “We had him one year, but he wasn’t eligible to play when he came out, I mean just took over. And certainly, Matt has the ability to do that, both physically and mentally. He’s got to do it, we’ve got to have other guys around him that do it.”
Senior infielder Storme Cooper is another guy that has shown sparks of brilliance in his time with the team. The senior has appeared in 141 games in his career at Southern Miss, including 72 starts at second base. Though he didn’t crack the starting defensive lineup last year as a junior, Cooper is set to get more playing time due to his production over fall camp. Coach Berry also spoke highly of him during media day on the improvement he has seen from the senior during the fall.
“Storme Cooper had a really good fall for us,” Berry said. “He’s much like a Nick Dawson, who we had back in 2016 that was a really steady player. He didn’t make the great plays, but he made the routine plays. That’s what we ask from that position up the middle. Storme played a really good shortstop this fall. Will McGillis is another guy that could see some action there. Those are our two candidates at shortstop. Hunter LeBlanc, a freshman, will also see him some time as well, whether in the outfield as a starter, whether it’s going to be as a pitch hit, pitch runner, but a very, very exciting guy; one that you’re going to be writing about in years to come, maybe this year also.”
Redshirt sophomore Gabe Montenegro played in a total of 59 games and started in 54 of them. As a sophomore, Montenegro did well at the plate, racking up 11 doubles and three triples to go along with a .979 field percentage as an outfielder.
The roster is full of other experienced players who have played parts in creating the current winning environment at Southern Miss. Coach Berry believes his team is prepared mentally and physically to take on the tough schedule that lies ahead of them.