HATTIESBURG — Southern Miss fans didn’t want it to end, not the Super Regional, not the season, not the final 5-0 defeat to Tennessee, and – most of all – not the coaching career of gentleman and head coach Scott Berry.
Joyous Tennessee players were still dog-piling near the pitcher’s mound after the final out, when a chant went up from the third base side of Pete Taylor Park. “Berry! Berry! Berry!” they shouted. As that faded, a chant began from the stands on the first base side. “Thank-you, 40! Thank-you, 40! Thank-you, 40!” they boomed in unison. (Berry’s jersey number is 40.)
Scott Berry, retiring at age 60, stood, his eyes glistening, and soaked it in. Then he turned to the crowd, took off the trademark batting helmet, placed it over his heart and waved to the crowd.
A few moments later, when Berry headed to left field for a final meeting with his players, Coach Tony Vitello and his Tennessee players watched and applauded as Berry crossed the infield and into the outfield. They doffed their caps to him. Later, before taking questions from reporters, Vitello would call Berry a “champion.”
“You ask anybody who has ever played with him, anybody who has ever coached with him or against him. They’ll tell you,” Vitello said. “The game is losing a great one, but he has left his mark.”
Berry has been wearing a baseball uniform for 55 of his 60 years, long enough to learn one of the hardball sport’s harshest lessons. That is, sometimes, no matter how good you are, how hard you practice, how much you want it, and how well you play, the other team, the other guy, is just better. Monday night, Tennessee, especially its pitching, was just better.
Drew Beam, the Vols’ starter, baffled the Eagles with a sharp-breaking slider that often moved like a whiffle ball. He shut the Eagles out for six innings, striking out seven, before Aaron Combs came on to strike out the only batter he faced. Then, Vitello turned to Chase Burns, his imposing closer, who recorded the last eight outs, striking out four, with laser-like, triple-digit fastballs that topped out at 102 mph.
“Elite,” Berry called Tennessee’s pitching. “Very elite. Beam was their third starter and I thought his stuff was better than the first two. We just couldn’t string anything together.”
The Eagles actually out-hit the Vols 7-6, but all seven USM hits were singles. Tennessee landed harder punches. Zane Denton’s fifth inning three-run home run was the game’s biggest blow and Maui Ahuna also tacked on a home run in the seventh.
Berry began his post-game press conference praising the Vols. “They work hard just like we do,” he said. “They wanted to go to Omaha just like we did. They are most deserving, and I wish them well.”
Indeed, Berry handled the disappointing defeat in his final game with utter class – the same as he has handled all else during his Southern Miss tenure. That tenure has closed with seven straight 40-victory seasons, seven straight NCAA Regionals and two straight Super Regionals. No other Division I program in the country has more than five straight 40-victory seasons. Berry’s last team finished 46-20.
Berry thanked USM fans many times over. He thanked his players, his coaches, his administration. He even thanked the media. “I want to thank you all for all the years and the relationships,” he said. “I’ve never had any issues with any of you. You’ve always been balanced.”
Listen: Berry even thanked the umpires. “They have a hard job, and this crew did a really good job,” he said.
Someone asked Berry how he wanted to be remembered. He didn’t mention victories or championships, regionals or Super Regionals.
“I tell our players every August in our first meeting that the batting averages, the statistics, the records will eventually fade, but you will remembered for the people you are,” Berry said, while his two captains, Justin Storm and Danny Lynch, nodded.
“People won’t remember how many home runs Matt Wallner hit. They won’t remember how many wins Nick Sandlin had. Those numbers will fade, but the person you are and the teammates you are, the coach you are, how you care for people and try to build people and try to mold people that are around you, that’s what they’ll remember the most. That’s a big part of who I am. As I’ve gotten older, I understand the big picture. The wins are part of it. The losses come with it, but it’s these guys.”
And what will Berry will remember most?
“I am going to spend the rest of my time thinking about the good times, the good wins,” he said. “I have been so blessed. … I am going to reflect on all the good times, not just as a head coach but as an assistant coaching with my buddy Corky Palmer.”
The late Corky Palmer, with Berry at his side, finished his career in Omaha in 2009 at the College World Series. Fourteen years later, Berry ended up one victory short of Omaha. But Palmer, his boss and his best friend, would surely use one of his homespun Corky-isms to congratulate Berry. My educated guess is Corky would put a hand on Berry’s shoulder, look him in the eyes, and tell him, “Scott, boy, you done good. Real good.”