This was Southern Miss pitcher Justin Storm after a clutch pitching performance against LSU on June 5, 2022 in the Hattiesburg Regional. Storm was even better Sunday night against Penn in a do-or-die USM victory; (AP file photo)

AUBURN, Ala. — Southern Miss’ Justin Storm thrives in this NCAA Regional thing. After pitching himself into the spotlight last season with a memorable performance against LSU in the Hattiesburg Regional, Storm was even better late Sunday night against Penn in an 11-2 Southern Miss victory.

The 6-foot, 7-inch former Madison Central Jaguar simply overpowered the Ivy League Quakers, pitching the last 5.2 innings, allowing only one hit, while striking out 10 and walking none. He filled the strike zone up with fastballs and hard sliders that Penn simply could not handle. Don’t let the final score fool you. Southern Miss trailed 2-1 when Storm entered the game and did not break it open until an eight-run ninth inning.

Rick Cleveland

“That’s some of the best stuff I’ve seen in a long, long time,” USM coach Scott Berry said of Storm. “That was total dominance. That’s the kind of stuff you see on TV in the Big Leagues.”

Berry saw the same thing precisely one year ago against LSU in the same do-or-die situation when Storm pitched the last 5.1 innings of an 8-4 victory over the high-powered Tigers.

“A star was born tonight,” Berry said at the time.

The star turned one with a bang Sunday night, entering the game in the fourth inning with one out and the bases loaded and the Eagles down 2-1. He struck out Penn batters for the second and third outs. Those were the first two of 16 Penn batters he would retire consecutively.

Asked what Storm was doing to bamboozle his batters, Penn coach John Yurkow said, “I’m trying to figure that out. I think he was throwing invisi-balls.”

Actually, Storm was mixing 91-mph fastballs and hard-breaking sliders, moving the ball in and out and up and down. “My best pitch tonight was my slider,” Storm said. “I could use it at any time in the count and I just kept mixing that with my fastball.”

Storm, a polite young man, is nonetheless intimidating on the mound. “He’s so tall it’s like he’s right on top of you when he lets go,” Yurkow said. “He’s throwing downhill … He really chewed us up.”

If there’s a rainbow after the Storm for Penn, it’s that the big lefty threw 61 pitches. It is highly unlikely he will pitch in the 2 p.m. championship game on Monday. Indeed, both coaches will have to piece their pitching together, dipping deep into their staffs.

That might not seem like such a daunting task for the Golden Eagles, considering what they’ve achieved the past two days. After losing in the opening round to Samford, they have come back to knock off top seed and Regional host Auburn 7-2 on Saturday, then defeated Samford 9-4 Saturday afternoon, exacting some revenge. It was a 12-hour day at the ballpark for the Eagles, who also endured a two-hour-plus rain delay in the Samford game.

Freshman second baseman Nick Monistere, the former Northwest Rankin standout, led the Eagles at the plate with three hits and three RBI against Penn after slamming two doubles and knocking in two runs against Samford.

Asked about his performance, Monistere beamed. “It was the bat,” he said. “I borrowed Dustin’s (Dickerson) bat. Now I want to keep it.”

This time last year, Monistere was helping Northwest Rankin win a State 6A Championship, as the Gatorade Player of the Year. “This is so much bigger,” he said postgame. “This is so much fun.”

Since he entered the starting lineup in April, no moment has seemed too big for Monistere. The more pressure, it seems, the better he is. 

The bat worked OK for Dickerson, too. His three-run blast over the center field wall highlighted the eight-run ninth.

With 10 strikeouts, Storm didn’t need all that much help in the field, but third baseman Danny Lynch provided plenty, snaring balls and making perfect throws for all three outs in the eighth inning. Lynch has put on a spectacular defensive exhibition this entire regional.

Against Samford, Southern Miss trailed 4-3 through five innings but then plated four runs in the sixth to change the game. Lynch homered among his three hits and Monistere provided the two doubles, two RBI and scored twice.

USM pitchers Matthew Adams (three innings), Kros Sivley (four innings) and Chandler Dawson (two innings) got it done on the mound, thanks to some sparkling outfield play. Left fielder Reece Ewing made two spectacular catches, including a leaping catch against the left field wall, and right fielder Carson Paetow made a diving, runs-saving catch, as well.

Southern Miss must still beat Penn again again today to advance to a Super Regional against the Tennessee Vols.

“Our biggest ally is our minds,” Berry said. “These guys believe in themselves.”

Michael Ewing’s leaping, circus catch against the left field wall saved runs for Southern Miss in a 9-4 victory over Samford Sunday afternoon. Credit: Joe Harper/Big Gold Photo

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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.