Jun 6, 2022: Southern Miss dogpiles after winning against LSU at the NCAA Baseball Regional at Pete Taylor Park, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Bobby McDuffie/CSM (Credit Image: © Bobby Mcduffie/CSM via ZUMA Press Wire) (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

Down years are virtually inevitable for college baseball programs. Even for elite programs, it’s almost impossible to avoid an occasional disappointing season, because of so many different factors.

Rick Cleveland

You’ve got the severe scholarship limits: 11.7, spread among 27 players. You’ve got the uncertainty of who will be chosen – and how high – in the Major League draft. You’ve got the fragility of pitching arms: an elbow here, a shoulder there, and you’re in trouble. And, now, you’ve got the transfer portal.

Look at Mississippi State: a national championship in 2021, then 26-30 last year. Or Ole Miss: a national championship last year, 25-23 today. 

But then there’s Scott Berry at Southern Miss. In the last six full college baseball seasons – excluding the COVID year – the Golden Eagles have won 41, 50, 44, 40, 40 and 47 games. All those teams received NCAA bids. Two hosted NCAA Super Regionals.

Scott Berry Credit: USM sports information

Berry’s current Eagles enter the weekend with a 32-15 record, the nation’s longest winning streak (10), a No. 25 national ranking and an NCAA power rating (RPI) of No. 23. They are tied for first place in the Sun Belt Conference with No. 8 Coastal Carolina. They appear to be headed to a seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament. If they finish strong, they might host another regional.

Is this USM’s down year? It might be the closest thing to it since 2015, which is amazing. And it is especially amazing when one considers Berry lost six pitchers to the MLB draft from last year’s staff, another (a future first round draft choice) to the transfer portal and still another to Tommy John surgery. 

Such a pitching exodus would cripple most college baseball programs. Berry and his pitching coach Christian “Oz” Ostrander have mixed and matched and patched to the point where the current Eagles have produced the third best pitching statistics in the Sun Belt. The team earned run average is nearly two runs higher (4.98 compared to 3.29) than last season, yet the Eagles are still winning.

Berry was asked about his program’s consistency on our recent Crooked Letter Sports Podcast. “It starts with this. You have a system and a philosophy in place and it’s successful, so you don’t tamper with it,” Berry said. “It starts with the fact that we’ve only had four coaches here in the last 64 years.

“There hasn’t been a turnover at the top,” he continued. “Every coaching turnover brings a new learning curve. It’s disruptive. Just look at football at Southern Miss and all the turnover there in recent years. You had a quarterback, Nick Mullens, who played under four different offensive coordinators in four years. That’s pretty tough…

“…We talk about tradition a lot here and tradition is about consistency,” Berry said. “I don’t want us to be a program that hits it big for one year and then you don’t hear about them for four or five years. That’s not consistency.”

Tanner Hall, surrounded by Scott Berry (left) and Chris Ostrander (right) won the Boo Ferriss Trophy last May.

All American Tanner Hall (9-3, 2.71 ERA) has been superb in the Friday night starter role, and Southern Miss has gotten huge contributions from redshirt freshman Kros Sivley and juco transfer Will Armistead out of the bullpen. Ex-Madison Central lefty Justin Storm, heroic in last seasons Regional victory over LSU, has become a bonafide closer. Ex-MRA ace Niko Mazza might have the best array of pitches on the staff. Matthew Adams appears to have bounced back nicely from an arm injury. Billy Oldham, a portal transfer from D-III Eastern Connecticut State, has stabilized the starting rotation.

Hitting-wise, the lineup has received a late-season boost from true freshman Nick Monistere, the Mississippi 6A Player of the Year last year at Northwest Rankin. Monistere, who also pitches, entered the starting lineup at second base a month ago, is hitting .321 and has slugged three home runs, three doubles and a triple among his 18 hits. “He’s been a blessing,” Berry says. 

Designated hitter Slade Wilks leads the Eagles with 18 home runs and 52 RBI, while shortstop-deluxe Dustin Dickerson leads the team with a .332 average and 17 doubles. Lately, veterans Christopher Sargent and Danny Lynch have ramped up their production to what they have provided in previous seasons.

Clearly, Berry’s club is playing its best baseball as the season winds down. “When they’re playing the way they are right now, I try to stay out of the way,” is the way Berry put it.

USM plays a three game road series at Louisiana-Monroe beginning Friday and closes the regular season next weekend when the always-strong Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns visit Hattiesburg. USM’s first Sun Belt Conference tournament will follow at Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, beginning May 23.

Should the Eagles finish the regular season strong and then win a couple in the league tournament, they will be in strong position to host another regional. “That’s always the goal here,” Berry says.

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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.