Southern Miss sophomore Hurston Waldrep has dominated batters thus far in the 2022 season. (Southern Miss media relations)

Southern Miss lost its top two starting pitchers and the Golden Eagles’ top arm out of the bullpen after reaching an NCAA Regional championship game at Oxford last season.

Walker Powell and Hunter Stanley, the two starters, and Ryan Och, the reliever, all play professional baseball now. Among them, they provided 24 victories against only six defeats and an earned run average of just over two runs per game. They struck out roughly five times as many batters as they walked. They were dominant was what they were.

Rick Cleveland

So, how in the world do you you rebuild all that? 

In the Golden Eagles case, they just reloaded.

Southern Miss, currently ranked as high as No. 11 in the country, has replaced those guys. And guess what: This season’s Eagle pitching staff has produced numbers far better than last year’s. Last year, Southern Miss had a team earned run average of 3.74 and opponents hit .236 against them. This season, Eagle pitchers have a team ERA of 2.86, nearly a run lower, and opponents hit just .222.

READ MORE: Christopher (Oz) Ostrander: This guy knows his stuff

In fact, Southern Miss pitching ranks in the top five of nearly every NCAA statistical category. Little wonder the Golden Eagles enter a three-game series at Florida International (FIU) Thursday night with 24-8 record and the nation’s ninth best RPI. All that has been achieved against a schedule that currently ranks 23rd most difficult in the nation.

Christopher Ostander has become USM’s pitching Wizard of Oz. (Southern Miss media relations)

The one constant in all this pitching success: pitching coach Christian Ostrander, known in college baseball circles as Oz, as in the Wizard of. Ostrander carries the additional title of associate head coach this season as a reward for the job he has done.  If he is not the best in the country at what he does, he certainly belongs in the conversation. Ostrander, a Delta State grad, has been successful wherever he has worked, including stints at Delta State, Jones Junior College and Louisiana Tech.

Says Scott Berry, Ostrander’s boss: “No doubt, Coach Oz is one of the best pitching coaches in our game today. He has a unique ability to connect with his pitchers through trust which enables their willingness to listen and develop accordingly. Many of our pitchers have taken their game to another level through his teaching both from the mental and physical sides of the game.”

Ostander’s philosophy of successful collegiate pitching can best be summed up in two words: “Throw strikes.”

No, Coach Oz is not alone in that regard but he surely seems to get his pitchers to buy into that philosophy better than 99% of the rest. Southern Miss ranks No. 2 in the nation in strikeout-to-walks ratio behind Tennessee. Golden Eagle pitching has struck out (353) nearly five times as many batters as they have walked (75). As a result, the Eagles rank third in the nation in earned run average. A deep bullpen has contributed mightily.

“I tell our guys, ‘Don’t give the hitters too much credit,’” Ostrander says. “Make them earn their way on. I tell them to watch batting practice and see how many outs hitters make against BP pitching. Don’t give them any gifts. Make them earn it.”

Southern Miss pitchers do. Look at the weekend starters: Tanner Hall has stuck out 68 batters and walked six in 49.2 innings. Hunter Riggins has fanned 41 and walked nine in 48 innings. Hurston Waldrep has struck out 63 and walked 13 in 42 innings. Waldrep, who has been the third starter in the rotation, has been most impressive of all, allowing only 25 hits and posting an ERA of 1.97. Opponents hit a measly .170 against him.

It helps to throw an explosive fastball with command in the 95-97 mph range, which Waldrep does. 

“He’s power-power,” Ostrander said. “He’s got a four-pitch mix with that fastball, a slider, a curve and a split change that when he throws it right is a big league pitch. He works at it. He is strong as an ox. I call him Thor.”

Waldrep, recruited to Hattiesburg out of Thomasville, Ga., has seemingly come out of nowhere after pitching only 16 innings all season in 2021 as a freshman.

Ostrander believes he has more pitchers who might surprise, as Waldrep has, later on.

“We’re deep, I believe that,” Ostrander said. “We’ve got some guys down the line who are just waiting for an opportunity. There’s only so many innings available and when your starters go deep, as ours have, it’s hard to get everybody the work they probably deserve.”

All that depth should bode well at tournament time. Southern Miss – and Ole Miss – fans well remember the 2021 Oxford Regional when the Golden Eagles slugged their way to the championship game but then ran short of pitching in the finale, losing 12-9 to the Rebels in a slugfest that featured 12 home runs, seven by the Eagles.

With the depth of the current staff, the Eagles should be better able to handle playing five games in four days, as an NCAA Regional often requires.

As this is written, the Eagles are 32 games into a 55-game regular season schedule. Much of the best competition is behind them. With much baseball yet to be played, Southern Miss looks like an NCAA host currently. The Eagles surely pitch not only like an NCAA host but also like a team that could wind up a top eight seed.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.