Southern Miss pitchers face big challenge in regional

Published 7:57 am Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Southern Miss made its name this season by being the best hitting team in Conference USA, and one of the best in the country.

It got to the next level, however, with its pitching.

The Golden Eagles posted two shutouts in five games at the Conference USA tournament, on their way to their second league title in three years. The pitching staff had a 1.05 ERA in the tournament, with not only ace Nick Sandlin shutting down opponents but less heralded hurlers like Keller Bradford and Mason Strickland throwing gems as well.

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As nice as it was, the Golden Eagles will be hard-pressed to repeat the performance this weekend in the NCAA Tournament’s Fayetteville Regional. Only 23 of the 297 teams in Division I have scored 400 or more runs this season, and three of them — Southern Miss, Dallas Baptist and Arkansas — will play in this regional.

Add in a hitter-friendly park at Arkansas’ Baum Stadium, and it’s a recipe for offense rather than pitching to shine.

“Hopefully I’ll go out there and set the tone again. But with Stevie (Powers) and Walker (Powell), we have confidence in all our guys. Hopefully we’ll get the whole team involved. Everybody’s going to have to step up. We’ve got good opponents that we’re facing,” Sandlin, the Ferriss Trophy winner who is ranked first in NCAA Division I with a 1.13 ERA, said Tuesday during a team media session in Hattiesburg. “They (Dallas Baptist) have some guys with some good numbers. I’ve heard they can really hit it. And the other teams, like Arkansas, can really hit it too.”

Regional host Arkansas (39-18) plays the first game Friday at 2 p.m. against Oral Roberts (38-18).
Southern Miss (43-16) will begin its regional run Friday at 7 p.m. against Dallas Baptist (40-19). It’s the first time the teams have faced each other since 2007, just before Dallas Baptist’s program started its rise to national prominence.

Dallas Baptist, which joined Division I in 2004, is making its fifth consecutive regional appearance and eighth in 11 seasons. It ranks ninth in Division I in scoring this season, with 437 total runs scored and 7.4 per game, and is also ninth with 77 home runs.

Five Patriots have hit nine or more home runs, led by Tim Millard with 14. Southern Miss, for comparison’s sake, has three players who have surpassed that mark — Matt Wallner (16), Luke Reynolds (15) and Hunter Slater (10). Arkansas led the mighty Southeastern Conference with 84 homers, and had four players with nine or more, although two others hit eight.

“They’ve done a lot of great things in their program to get where they are. They’re a quality program and will be a good test for us, for sure,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said of Dallas Baptist.

Southern Miss is the No. 2 seed in the regional, but will have its hands full with Dallas Baptist and potentially dealing with Arkansas’ homefield advantage later in the tournament.

The Golden Eagles, though, feel like they’ve been handling pressure all season. They entered the campaign looking to atone for last year’s postseason flameout, when they won 50 games but lost two in a row to Mississippi State at their home regional in Hattiesburg. And, even though they won the Conference USA regular-season and tournament championships this year, they still went into the C-USA tournament almost in a must-win situation thanks to a late slump.

Wallner said the steady stream of challenges has helped the Golden Eagles grow and prepare for the big stage of the NCAA Tournament.

“I think it’s a maturity aspect, both the individual and the team. We’ve been ranked for the most part, top 15 in the country for the whole year if not the top 10 at times. Just knowing we’ve got to play day in and day out is really tough for us,” Wallner said. “We were going to Old Dominion who had a ranking of 250, and if we drop one game our RPI is dropping 10 points if not more. Just knowing that we’ve got to win every game and keep our RPI, it’s just knowing we’ve got to be mature as an individual and as a team and go in and get the job done.”

Hattiesburg American sports writer Jason Munz contributed to this report.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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