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title on line for USM in key series

[5/20/04]All year long Southern Miss has been in the shadow of East Carolina.

The seventh-ranked Pirates (45-8, 23-4 Conference USA) have camped out and made themselves comfortable atop the C-USA standings. ECU has dominated its opponents, winning eight of its nine conference series heading into tonight’s contest in Hattiesburg.

But one swing of the bat by TCU’s Austin Adams put the 17th-ranked Golden Eagles (39-13, 20-7) in range of winning the conference for the second year in a row. Adams hit a three-run home run to lead TCU to a 3-1 victory on Sunday, ending ECU’s 22-game conference win streak.

ECU, three games ahead of Southern Miss, enters Pete Taylor Park for a three-game series that will determine the conference champion. Tulane, however, is still in the race, tied with Southern Miss at 20-7 in the conference.

“It should be a great series,” Southern Miss coach Corky Palmer said. “Pete Taylor Park at this time of the year doesn’t play really big. There’s probably going to be a lot of offense.

“Whoever controls the hill will win the series.”

ECU’s strong bats stand in Southern Miss’ way. The Pirates are hitting .322 as a team with 91 home runs, and they’ve scored 10 or more runs in a game 14 times this year.

“Their pitching’s good, but they swing the bats,” USM second baseman Jarrett Hoffpauir said. “That’s their power point. They swing the bats extremely well and hit a lot of home runs.”

Ryan Jones (.406, 18 HR) and Trevor Lawhorn (.311, 20 HR) lead six everyday ECU starters that hit over .300.

“Power, power, power a lot like we were last year,” Palmer said. “They hit a lot of home runs and have tremendous left-handed hitters. That’s going to be our deal, to control their offense. But we hit the ball, too.”

Whether or not Southern Miss wins the title, this season has been a pleasant surprise, Hoffpauir said.

The Golden Eagles lost their top two hitters Clint King and Jeff Cook who combined for 46 home runs and 153 RBIs a year ago. They also lost their top two pitchers in Bob McCrory (10-3, 3.84 ERA) and Stephen Castleman (8-2, 4.14 ERA).

“It’s hard to match a season like last year … but we came in and we worked hard, and it’s paying off now,” Hoffpauir said.

Regardless of who wins the conference title, Southern Miss is looking at bigger and better things such as winning an NCAA Regional and reaching the College World Series.

“We’re thinking of bigger picture,” Palmer said. “We could possibly tie for the conference title and give a reason that we could be considered for a host. We told our players two weeks ago what we had to do to be considered for a host.”

Since then, the Golden Eagles have won eight consecutive conference games to keep pace with ECU. But they’re not done yet.

“We’ve probably got about 98 percent of our work done, but we’ve got to win a couple before I reckon we get a regional,” Palmer said.