AUBURN, Ala. — The Southern Miss Golden Eagles lost eight front-line pitchers from last season — six to the MLB draft, one to the transfer portal and one to injury. They found some others.
The Eagles weren’t really playing to their potential in February, March and much of April. They kept battling.
They lost the regular season Sun Belt Championship by one game to powerhouse Coastal Carolina. They came back and won the Sun Belt Tournament.
They lost the first game of the Auburn Regional. They came back and won their next three and set up Monday’s regional championship game.
With a pitching staff running on fumes, they fell behind Penn 5-1 in the fourth inning Monday. They immediately tied it up in the bottom of that inning and went on to an 11-7 championship victory, cheered wildly by a mostly gold-clad throng that made Plainsman Park seems like Pete Taylor Park East.
Do you notice a theme here? No matter what, don’t count Southern Miss out. As Penn coach John Yurkow said of USM, “That’s a tough ball club over there, very well-coached, really talented. They fight you tooth and nail.”
In Scott Berry’s last season as head coach, the Golden Eagles have won 45 games, lost 18, won a conference championship, won a regional championship and now advance to a Super Regional for a second consecutive season.
“You’re always trying to check all the boxes,” a Gatorade-soaked Berry said in the postgame press conference. “The biggest box of all is to the win the national championship. That’s what we are trying to do.”
Of the 305 Division I teams that began this season, Southern Miss remains one of 16 in the hunt. As this is written, we don’t know whether the Eagles will be playing Tennessee at Knoxville or in Hattiesburg this weekend. Berry believes his team has earned the privilege of hosting.
“I definitely think we have earned the right,” Berry said. “I think we have the resume. I think we’ve done enough. I thought we had done enough to host a regional, but we didn’t get that and I know much of it is based on RPI. But I’m just really proud of our guys. They have done this the hard way.”
Berry said his wife, Laura, read him a passage Monday morning from a newspaper article written back in 1982. It was after Southern Miss had stunned Bear Bryant and Alabama, ending Bama’s 59-game football home winning streak. Mickey Spagnola, who covered Ole Miss for the old Jackson Daily News, wrote it. It went like this: “If you’re going to war, always choose Southern Mississippi. Don’t fight Southern Mississippi. No matter how hard you fight, these folks will fight harder. These people know sweat. They know hard work and they know nothing ever comes easy. They are hard, I’m telling you, they are hard.”
Berry said he read the quote to his team in the team’s pregame huddle. They then went out and performed just as Spagnola described 41 years ago.
So many Southern Miss heroes came through when it counted most:
- Shortstop Dustin Dickerson, the regional MVP, slammed his fourth home run of the regional and knocked in four runs, precisely the margin of victory.
- Tate Parker hit safely three times, walked once, was hit by a pitch and scored three runs.
- Carson Paetow slammed a double and a single and batted in two runs.
- Rodrigo Montenegro, catching his third game in a 27-hour span, added a double and a single and knocked in two runs.
- All American pitcher Tanner Hall gutted out two innings to start and gave up no earned runs.
- Billy Oldham, the winning pitcher against Auburn on Saturday when he threw 81 pitches, came back on a day’s rest and three scoreless innings to pick up his eighth win of the year against three defeats.
- Will Armistead, the last of five USM pitchers, threw 2.2 scoreless innings, striking out five and allowing only one hit for his first career save.
And there were more. Hall, Montenegro, Dickerson, Paetow, second baseman Nick Monistere and third baseman Danny Lynch all made the All-Regional team. But, obviously, much of the focus remains on Scott Berry, although he wishes that was not the case. Tears welled in his eyes a couple of times during the postgame press conference when he talked about how his team’s late-season run – the Eagles have now won 23 of their last 26 games – should be about the players, not him.
His players, to a man, say otherwise. Said Dickerson, “Our goal from day one was to win the national championship. This being his last season gives us that much more to play for. Everybody wants to win for him. He doesn’t want any of the credit, and that’s just the man he is. But we’re all pushing for him.”