Southern Miss shortstop Dustin Dickerson (10) attempts to turn a double play against Tennessee during an NCAA Super Regional Sunday, June 11, 2023, in Hattiesburg, Miss. (Aimee Cronan/The Gazebo Gazette via AP)

HATTIESBURG — Southern Miss was up one game in the best-of-three Super Regional and had snatched a 4-0 lead over Tennessee in Game 2. A sun-baked, humidity-broiled overflow crowd at Pete Taylor Park of 5,882 was thundering its approval Sunday. The Golden Eagles were six innings away from a trip to the College World Series, and two-time All-American Tanner Hall was on the mound.

Rick Cleveland

Then it happened.

Christian Moore doubled to left field to start the Tennessee fourth. After a fly out, Merritt Griffin singled home Moore to cut the lead to 4-1, bringing first baseman Blake Burke, a left-handed slugger, to the plate. The count reached two balls and two strikes, and Hall threw a slider, down at the knees across the plate.

“A good pitch,” USM coach Scott Berry would later say. “It wasn’t like Tanner hung it. It was a good pitch down in the zone.”

Burke unleashed a violent swing, connected and there was never any doubt. Golden Eagle right fielder Carson Paetow just turned around and stared. He didn’t move. No need.

Burke’s blast rocketed far above the smoking barbecue grills in Southern Miss’ right field roost, sailed through the tops of tall pine trees, landed in the parking lot of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, and then one-hopped high off the church’s brown exterior. 

We were told in the press box Burke’s two-run home run, which cut USM’s lead to 4-3, traveled 479 feet from home plate. It did more than that. It changed the game.

Tennessee coach Tony Vitello used a basketball metaphor. “It’s like in basketball where two points is two points, but yet an emphatic slam dunk can kind of change the momentum of the entire game. A home run like that can be like a slam dunk. It changes the mood in the dugouts. It kind of changes everything.”

Burke’s blast surely seemed to do just that. Before the fourth inning was over, the Vols would score three more runs, take a 6-4 lead and never look back for an 8-4 victory that sends this Hattiesburg Super Regional to a third and deciding game Monday. Late Sunday night, the starting time was set for 5 p.m.

Southern Miss’s Dustin Dickerson (10) slides safely into third base while Tennessee infielder Zane Denton (44) waits for the ball during an NCAA Super Regional game Sunday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The first two days of this Super Regional have been like a grueling, sweat-drenched marathon. Southern Miss won the first game, which began at 2 p.m. Saturday, endured two lengthy weather delays, and ended early Sunday afternoon. After leading 4-0 Saturday, Southern Miss held on for a hard-earned 5-3 victory.

Beginning at 11 a.m., Justin Storm pitched the last 4.2 innings for Southern Miss for the victory, blanking the powerful Vols on just two hits after Billy Oldham had given the Golden Eagles a quality start the day before. Shortstop Dustin Dickerson slammed a home run and a double, second baseman Nick Monistere homered and left fielder Tate Parker ripped a two-run triple.

Game 2 also started well for the home team. Hall blanked the Vols for three straight innings and then his teammates struck for four runs in the third inning off Tennessee’s highly touted right hander Chase Dollander, expected to be a top 10 pick in this summer’s Major League draft.

Christopher Sargent’s three-run home run off the scoreboard in left field was the big blow of the four-hit, four-run inning. But who would have thought it? Southern Miss never managed another hit off Dollander, who mixed 96- and 97-mph fastballs with some nasty breaking pitches. Dollander only seemed to get stronger. Put it this way: Dollander’s 107th pitch in the 9th inning was a 97-mph fastball on the inside corner.

Dollander couldn’t quite finish. Vitello brought in Chase Burns for the final three outs, which must have seemed like good news for the Golden Eagles at the time. But then three of Burns’ first four pitches hit 100 mph on the radar gun and he used just 10 pitches to get the last three outs.

Berry, who Monday could be coaching his last game of a remarkable 14-year run as Southern Miss coach, often likens post-season baseball games to heavyweight fights. In this Super Regional, Tennessee has gotten off the canvas and floored Southern Miss with a bevy of punches, including Burke’s haymaker.

How will the Golden Eagles respond?

Hall, who might well have pitched his last game as a Golden Eagle Sunday, believes he knows. “We know what it takes to win and we’ll do what it takes to win,” Hall said. “After a tough loss, we always come back.”

Said Berry, “We are a veteran team. We believe in ourselves.”

Tennessee, just one season removed from being one of the most dominant regular season teams in college baseball history, is likewise a veteran team that feels like it has some unfinished business after falling flat in its own Super Regional last year.

So here we are, one game, winner-take-all for a ticket to Omaha. Tennessee will likely pitch sophomore Drew Beam (8-4), who won the final game of the Clemson Regional. USM will likely go with either sophomore Nikko Mazza (5-1) or junior Matthew Adams (3-2).

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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.