Four hundred ninety-one strikeouts, 396 runs batted in, 67 homeruns, 40 wins, one conference title; looking at the numbers, the Southern Miss baseball team had a successful season in 2019. After ending their season in Baton Rouge at their fourth consecutive regional tournament, the Golden Eagles are back and ready for a fifth.
“We’ve been working very hard since the end of August on this journey to where we are today,” head coach Scott Berry said. “I know we’re coming off of our fourth straight Regional last year and another 40-win season and another conference title. We know the expectations that are in place, but I feel like that’s the tradition that’s been built.”
Returning nine pitchers, Berry is confident in the depth his staff provides. In addition to familiar names, such as Gabe Shephard and Walker Powell, freshmen pitchers Isaiah Rhodes, Ben Ethridge, Matthew Adams, Chandler Best and Blake Wehunt could see playing time.
“I feel like it’s probably the most depth that we’ve had in a staff,” Berry said. “It’s not a vanilla staff, and no one looks the same. We have some different options, and I have been very pleased with the progress of our staff.”
As far as the starting spots on the mound, there is still competition for those roles. Other spots up for grabs include first base, right field, center field and catcher replacing Hunter Slater, Matt Wallner, Fred Franklin, Cole Donaldson and Bryant Bowen. The new catching duo include Arkansas transfer Andrew Stanley and Gordon State College transfer Brain Davis.
Candidates at first base include Will McGillis and Austen Izzio. While both are capable, it depends on who is on the mound.
“[McGillis] was a solid defender last year, I think he only had three errors going into the Ole Miss game last year deep in the year,” Berry said. “He is my most improved player in the fall. Offensively, he and Coach Creel really blended well together in redefining his offensive skills. I saw a young man who developed his swing and who’s plane stayed a lot flatter.”
Fisher Norris is in the running for right field as well as Brant Blaylock. Hunter LeBlanc saw some playing time last season in center field; however, that is also a position where Gabe Montenegro is comfortable.
“I would love to play center,” Montenegro said. “It’s more comfortable to play center because every ball that is sent is coming straight. My whole life I have played center field, so it wasn’t until I came here that I played left.”
If Montenegro is moved to center, that allows Charlie Fisher to join the starting lineup at left field. That would give the Golden Eagles the power at the plate they are still searching for.
“In the outfield, you have several guys trying to battle for spots,” assistant coach Travis Creel said. “Charlie Fisher, he had 11 at bats last year, has real power. He’s a left handed hitter, a big powerful guy that can hit the ball a long way.”
Creel is still searching for this season’s key hitters. Montenegro led the Golden Eagles in 2019 with a .324 batting average followed by Bowen, Wallner and Slater putting senior Matthew Guidry in fourth with a .297 average.
“[Hitting] has always been collective, the unit working as one,” Guidry said. “Some guys might heat up at the right time and when those big-name guys aren’t doing so well. It falls on them to keep it afloat until those guys get out of slump. Baseball is a very, very big game of failure. We got to be in this thing bought on together.”
The Golden Eagles will open their season at 4 p.m. on Feb. 14 at Pete Taylor Park against Murray State.