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College : : Story
Southern Miss setting the stage
Kendall Rogers        
Published: Tuesday, April 05, 2011

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PREMIUM SCOOP: Much more on Southern Miss

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A true Cinderella story was the best way to describe Southern Mississippi’s first trip to the College World Series in 2009. But should the Golden Eagles return to Omaha for the second time in school history this season, it would be anything but a fluke. It would represent the reality of what already has been a great season.

After reaching the CWS two seasons ago, the Golden Eagles finished last season with a solid Conference USA finish, but only with a 36-24 overall record after finishing third in the Auburn, Ala., Regional behind Auburn and Clemson.

If the Golden Eagles continue this season at the current pace, they won’t have to worry about hitting the road for the first round of the NCAA postseason. Heck, they may not have to worry about doing so for any of the tournament outside of Omaha.

But like most coaches, USM coach Scott Berry, now in his second season, isn’t in the business of getting ahead of himself. Sure, the Golden Eagles are 22-5, 5-1 in C-USA, but he believes there’s much work to do as the season progresses.

“Twenty-seven games into the season, we’re playing a pretty good brand of baseball. We’re competing well and playing hard,” he said. “The big key is for us to keep doing the things we’re doing. If we do that, we’re going to be in good shape at the end.”

Berry admittedly is surprised the Golden Eagles are in the discussion for a national seed at this point in the season. However, he’s not surprised the Eagles are off to such a hot start.

“I thought we would return some pretty good offense from last season because those guys already had some Omaha experience,” he said. “The big question mark was our pitching staff. And what we’ve been able to do on the mound this season is pretty impressive.”

The Golden Eagles have made significant strides on the mound. They finished last season with an iffy 5.96 ERA. But so far this season, they have a 3.28 ERA with a stable weekend rotation led by Todd McInnis and Geoffrey Thomas. It’s also worth noting opponents hit the Eagles at a .304 clip last season, but only are hitting .239 this spring.

The rise of the weekend rotation has keyed their success. Todd McInnis, an experienced senior, is continuing his fabulous career with another solid campaign. But Thomas, a talented right-handed sophomore, has been most instrumental with a significant turnaround this spring.

Thomas finished last season with a dismal 8.37 ERA, but has taken a step forward this season with a 6-1 record and a 1.48 ERA in 48 2/3 innings. He also has struck out 31 and walked 16 and opponents are hitting .172 against him.

“I think the big key for Geoffrey was taking last year’s bad experiences and turning them into a developmental thing. He had failures that he used to his advantage in the offseason,” Berry said. “He worked hard in the offseason and now takes the mound with a presence, great poise and now feels completely in control.”

Berry added that Thomas has a solid four-pitch mix with a cutter, breaking ball, changeup and fastball, and that he has topped out at 93 mph. The rise of Thomas and continuation of McInnis has taken pressure off the bullpen.

Relievers Dillon Day and Chase Horn have impressed Berry. Day has appeared in five games and has a 3.29 ERA in 13 2/3 innings, while Horn has appeared in eight games and has a 3.18 ERA in 17 innings.

“The big issues we had last season is that our starting pitchers weren’t going deep enough in games to take pressure off the bullpen,” he said. “Now, our starters are going deep and we’re not having to use our relievers so much.”

While the pitching staff has been impressive, the offense is providing ample support with a .316 average so far this season.

Though several coaches around the country are pointing to the new BBCOR bats as reasons for their respective teams’ offensive downfalls, the Golden Eagles have showed no signs of letting up at the plate. As a matter of fact, several Eagles hitters have improved their averages from last season.

Kameron Brunty has improved his average from .303 to .342, Adam Doleac is up a few points from .352 to .355, Tyler Koelling is up from .333 to .381 and Marc Bourgeois has made the most strides, increasing his average from .250 to .393 with four homers and 18 RBIs.

“You can’t just go out and recruit a bunch of big-time sluggers anymore, you have to find guys that can control the barrel. We have that,” he said. “I’d say Bourgeois has been our most impressive hitter. He has really turned the corner as a result of putting everything together both mentally and physically.”

With the offense and pitching staff performing at a high level, Berry believes team defense still could improve despite having a solid .971 fielding percentage. But otherwise, he loves the direction the team is headed the second half of the season.

Should the Golden Eagles continue at the current rate, it’ll be tough to keep them out of a national seed at the end of the season. The Eagles have an RPI of 2 with a 2-2 record vs. Top 25 RPI teams, 8-3 vs. RPI Top 50 and 15-4 mark vs. RPI Top 100. Additionally, the Eagles have two of their tougher C-USA opponents – Tulane and UCF – out of the way with Rice on the docket the final weekend of the regular season.

Two seasons after shocking everyone with a trip to Omaha, the Golden Eagles, thanks to several players stepping up, are in position to perhaps make another trip to the CWS at the end of the season.

Only this time the trip won’t be so unexpected.

TUESDAY

Central Florida at No. 4 Florida: The Knights are coming off a tough weekend series against Southern Mississippi, but could change their fortunes in a big way with a road midweek win over highly ranked Florida. A win over the Gators would give the Knights a boost in the RPI department.

No. 7 Arizona State at No. 21 Arizona: Just two weeks after losing two of three on the road to Arizona State, the Wildcats host the Sun Devils for a midweek bout. The Wildcats need a victory over the Sun Devils to rebound from a tough home series loss to Oregon State last weekend. The Wildcats need some marquee wins.

Houston at No. 9 Texas A&M: The Cougars finally have a winning record again and are coming off a huge road series sweep over Tulane. UH could improve its postseason resume and RPI with a midweek win over the Aggies. Beating the Cougars also would be beneficial for the national-seed minded Aggies.

No. 23 Oklahoma State at No. 12 Oklahoma: The Bedlam matchup between the Cowboys and Sooners should be an absolute dandy. Both teams are playing at a high level. The Cowboys have won back-to-back conference series against Texas and Kansas, while the Sooners are coming off a home series sweep over Texas Tech. Little love is lost when these two programs meet.

No. 17 LSU at Tulane: The Tigers bounced back from a tough weekend at Georgia with a home series win over Ole Miss last weekend. Tulane, meanwhile, is going through a major skid, losing four games last week, including getting swept by Houston at home. The Green Wave could use a postseason resume-boosting win over the in-state rival Tigers.

San Jose State at No. 14 Stanford: It might just be the most important week of the Spartans’ regular season. They have a chance to earn a huge midweek win over Stanford before hosting Fresno State over the weekend. The Spartans could use an RPI boost with a win over the Cardinal. Better yet, starting the week on a positive note with the Bulldogs coming up this weekend is important.

Mississippi State at No. 19 Southern Mississippi: Just a week after beating in-state rival Ole Miss in a midweek bout, the Golden Eagles get another chance to earn a midweek win over a fellow state power in Mississippi State. The Eagles are coming off a road series sweep over UCF, while the Bulldogs hope to bounce back from getting swept at Georgia last weekend.

Louisville at Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers and Cardinals met last week in midweek action with the Cardinals taking the home bout. But WKU hopes to return the favor at home this week. The Toppers hope to bounce back from a tough series loss at Arkansas-Little Rock last weekend, while the Cardinals want to build off a home series win over West Virginia. Both teams could use a solid midweek triumph.

Coastal Carolina at Clemson: This is an important game for both teams. The Chanticleers have had issues this season, but showed some signs of breaking out of their funk with a series win over Liberty last weekend. Clemson, meanwhile, dropped all three games to North Carolina last weekend and is nearing a .500 record. Both clubs need to tally some wins.

Auburn at No. 23 Troy: The Tigers have struggled lately, losing their last six SEC contests, but they defeated Troy in midweek action in the only meeting between the two teams so far this season. That game was at Auburn. This time, the Tigers hit the road to face the Trojans, who are looking for some revenge after hitting the road over the weekend and sweeping Arkansas State in Sun Belt action.

No. 11 East Carolina at N.C. State: It’ll be interesting to see how the Pirates respond after dropping a road series to UAB last weekend. N.C. State, meanwhile, will need some good things to happen to make the NCAA postseason at this point and desperately needs a win over East Carolina to boost its RPI and resume.

WEDNESDAY

Texas State at Arkansas: The Bobcats and Razorbacks meet up for an important bout. The Bobcats are dominating Southland Conference competition so far this season, but have had issues earning impressive midweek wins. That could change this week as they travel to play the Hogs. The Hogs, meanwhile, are coming off three-straight SEC series losses and need a confidence-boosting victory.

Elon at East Carolina: The Phoenix has put together a solid campaign thus far, but is looking to bounce back after a tough series loss to UNC Greensboro last week. ECU, meanwhile, has a busy midweek with a Tuesday bout against N.C. State. Both teams could use the midweek win, but it’s bigger for Elon, who doesn’t play quite the conference schedule ECU does.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at kendall@perfectgame.org



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