HATTIESBURG – Nothing was easy. Nothing ever is for Southern Miss, no matter the sport, no matter the venue.
But Scott Berry’s Golden Eagles achieved on a hot, muggy Monday afternoon what had seemed nearly impossible late Saturday night. They defeated the LSU Tigers 8-7, erasing a 4-1 deficit, to claim the championship of the Hattiesburg NCAA Regional. In doing so, they sent a highly partisan home crowd at Pete Taylor Park into something bordering on delirium.
The victory – or victories – set up a monster of a Super Regional this coming weekend when Ole Miss, winner of the Coral Gables Regional, comes to town.
After the last pitch, Southern Miss players charged the infield where they piled on to one another. Then they headed for Pete Taylor Park’s Right Field Roost where they literally climbed the outfield wall to high-five with celebrating fans. Still an hour after the game, sweat-soaked fans lingered, soaking in the moment, lavishing in what their favorite team had achieved.
They had achieved so much. After LSU erased a four-run deficit and knocked the Eagles into the losers bracket Saturday night, Southern Miss had to win three straight games a matter of 30 hours. They had to beat LSU twice.
“I’m so proud, I’m just so proud,” Berry said, rubbing his bald head, his eyes misting.
If he said it once, he said it 20 times– “I’m just so proud” – during a series of post-game interviews. He said he was proud for his players, proud for his coaches, proud for the thousands of fans who were still in the stands cheering. And he said, the emotion showing clearly in his tearing eyes, he was proud of the joy he knew the victory brings to his old boss, Corky Palmer, who because medical issues due to a massive stroke listens to the USM games these days on a radio in a Collins medical facility.
“I know how much this means to him,” Berry said. “I just wish he could be here to enjoy this. Man, he would enjoy this.”
Heroes were plenty. Christopher Sargent, the MVP of the Regional, provided three more hits, scored two runs and knocked in another. Danny Lynch and Gabe Montenegro also hit safely three times. Montenegro batted in three runs, including two on his clutch single in the seventh that scored two of the Eagles’ four runs in that crucial inning. Shortstop Dustin Dickerson made play after superb defensive play.
But the biggest hero was the largest Golden Eagle, 6-foot-9-inch Tyler Stuart, who entered with the game on the line in the eighth inning. LSU had tied the score at 7 and had a runner on base with two outs and the most dangerous part of the Tigers’ batting order coming to the plate. Stuart got Jacob Berry to ground out for the last out of the eighth.
Then after USM plated the go-ahead run in the ninth, Stuart retired Cade Doughty, Tre’ Morgan and Jordan Thompson – who had combined for six hits and five RBIs. Doughty and Moran grounded out and then Thompson struck out.
Stuart went right at them, throwing 95- and 96-mph fast balls – as if to say: “Here comes the heat, let’s see what you got.”
“Nothing but fast balls,” Stuart would say later. “That’s all I threw.”
That game-winning, ninth inning run? Sargent led off the inning with a two-strike single to center field. That brought up Slade Wilkes who lined a single to right field, moving Sargent all the way to third. Lynch followed with a high fly ball to left field, easily scoring Sargent from third.
That was all that Stuart would need. What Justin Storm had done the night before, holding the dangerous Tigers in check, Stuart did Monday.
Said Lynch, who was in the same USM signing class as Stuart three years ago, “Nobody has worked harder for this moment that Stu. Even when he wasn’t getting the chance to pitch as much as he wanted, he never stopped working. Even when he had Tommy John surgery, he just kept working. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Berry smiled and nodded, as he listened to Lynch talk about his teammate.
“You have to do a lot of things right to win a baseball game,” Berry said. “We did a lot of things right out there today, and in two games yesterday.”
Really, Southern Miss had only one bad inning in the tournament, when LSU rallied to win the game Saturday night.
“You don’t win 47 games unless you do a lot of things right,” Berry said. “You don’t win 47 games unless you have the kind of chemistry this team has.”
Southern Miss will take a 47-17 record into the Super Regional against an Ole Miss team, once ranked No. 1 in the country, which is playing its best baseball currently. The Rebels came to Hattiesburg late in the season to win a mid-week game. The two teams split their two regular season games.
The Hattiesburg Super Regional will be a matchup of mutual respect. Bianco and Berry are good friends.
“In my mind, Mike Bianco is responsible for building that Ole Miss program into one of the most respected in the country,” Berry said. “They ought to build a statue of him outside that stadium. He came to Ole Miss the same year I came to Southern Miss (as Palmer’s assistant.) I’ve watched it happen. It’s just amazing what he has achieved.”
Berry said he expects the Super Regional to be a celebration of Mississippi baseball.
“No other state loves its college baseball like the people of Mississippi,” Berry said. “You look at Mississippi State last year. You look at the attendance figures at all three schools year after year after year.
“This will be an amazing atmosphere. Heck, this was an amazing atmosphere this week. What a tournament. What a performance by our guys. Again, I couldn’t be more proud.”