Late-season swoon was Golden Eagles’ epitaph

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Piece by piece, Southern Miss’ season came tumbling down.

One bad weekend turned into two, then a forgettable month. A rare shutout loss stretched into a scoreless streak approaching three dozen innings. Suspensions and injuries piled up like vehicles in a 40-car pile up.

When the season ended on Saturday, with a 6-2 loss to Georgia Tech in an NCAA regional in Atlanta, it almost seemed a blessing. At least now this nightmarish end to a once-promising spring couldn’t get any worse.

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“I think we saw both sides of that spectrum this year,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “Early in the season everything went well for us, we were playing hard and we were creating things. It wasn’t that we didn’t play hard at the end; we just started getting a taste of adversity. It seems we just couldn’t pull ourselves out of it for whatever reason.”

The Golden Eagles held a two-game lead in the Conference USA standings when things began to unravel. After beating Houston on May 13 — Friday the 13th, in an ironic twist — USM’s lead evaporated with a four-game losing streak.

Southern Miss recovered to beat Rice in the regular-season finale and salvage a piece of the C-USA championship, but it was little solace. It went on to lose two of three in the league tournament, and eight of its last 10 games in all.

Included in the swoon was a 32-inning scoreless streak that spanned parts of four games. After scoring three runs in the seventh in an eventual 14-inning loss to Houston in the C-USA Tournament, the Golden Eagles didn’t score again until the eighth inning in the regional finale against Georgia Tech.

“We felt good coming in. We put the conference tournament behind us,” USM shortstop B.A. Vollmuth said after a 3-0 loss to Mississippi State in the regional opener. “Our offense needs to find something to get going here. Like you said, 25 innings scoreless, that can’t happen, especially this time of the year.”

Although they tried not to use them as a crutch, there were a few legitimate reasons for the Golden Eagles’ late slide.

Tyler Koelling, the Ferriss Trophy winner as the best college player in Mississippi, missed the entire C-USA Tournament because of a hamstring injury.

He returned for the regional, but went 0-for-3 as a deisgnated hitter and pinch hitter.

First baseman Adam Doleac, a .335 hitter, was also limited to just two pinch-hit appearances in the regional because of a stress fracture in his foot.

On the mound, the academic suspensions of Nos. 2 and 3 starters Geoffrey Thomas and Jonathan Thompson left the team scrambling for arms.

“I always say if you can limit off-the-field problems, you have a chance to be successful. Our off-the-field problems at the end of the year kind of disrupted some things, but we will not use that as an excuse. We had to make our own road from there,” Berry said. “Injuries happen and it’s unfortunate that they happened at the wrong time to key people. That’s another thing that a good program should be able to deal with. We are a very good program but we did not overcome that.”

Now, Berry must retool without some of his top players. Eight seniors, including Doleac, Koelling, two-time C-USA Pitcher of the Year Todd McInnis and All-America closer Collin Cargill have played their last game in Hattiesburg. Vollmuth, a junior, might leave depending on where he’s picked in this week’s major league draft.

That group has formed the core of a strong team that cut its teeth in the College World Series in 2009. It leaves with plenty of memories, including the lasting one of a season that slipped away.

“I think what I am going to miss is the leadership that they bring and how they go about their job,” Berry said. “I think if you are any kind of a student of the game and you watch them perform, you can’t help but learn how to play the game the right way.”