Four years ago, Southern Mississippi was flying high. The Golden Eagles had made nine consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including a trip to the 2009 College World Series. That fall, the Golden Eagles capitalized on their momentum by bringing in the most decorated recruiting class in school history. Led by unsigned third-round pick Connor Barron and talented two-way players Mason Robbins and Bradley Roney, that class was ranked third in the nation by Baseball America.
That ballyhooed recruiting class never lived up to the soaring expectations, as injuries and underperformance caused USM to miss three consecutive NCAA regionals. But it’s not too late for a handful of seniors from that 2011 class to grab a measure of redemption, and for a younger group of gritty Golden Eagles to lead the program back into the NCAA tournament this spring.
“For nine straight years, our players, our coaching staff, our fans, got that opportunity to extend the season with 63 other teams with hopes of being one of eight there in Omaha. It would be everything [to make it back to regionals],” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “I’ve got players in place who have worked very hard to try to get there. When they leave here, I want those who return to have that taste in their mouths of what it’s like, what it takes to get back there. We need to get that taste back in our mouths that we had for so long here at Southern Miss.”
Early in the season, it looked like Southern Mississippi’s regional drought was sure to reach four years. The Eagles started the season 7-6-1, capped by a series loss to Oakland (which was 0-8 entering that weekend and is 10-35 now). Instead, the Eagles have had to fight and claw their way back into the at-large picture. They didn’t seem like a legitimate contender as recently as April 25, when they lost the first two games of a series at UTSA to fall to 22-16-1, 9-10 in C-USA, and No. 85 in the RPI.
Since then, Southern Miss has reeled off 10 straight wins to climb to 16-10 in C-USA (a half-game out of third place) and No. 58 in the RPI. This week, we included the Eagles in our field of 64 projection for the first time all season. It comes down to this: If Southern Miss can win its final series at second-place Middle Tennessee State this weekend, it has a strong chance to put itself in an at-large position. And it can further improve its case with a nice showing in the conference tournament — which it hosts.
A group of holdovers from that 2011 recruiting class have played important roles in USM’s surge. Lefthander Cody Livingston has worked his way back from Tommy John surgery to carve out a role in the bullpen, alongside fellow lefty Luke Lowery. Barron has become a nice player as a senior, finding a home in center field and in the leadoff spot. He’s hitting .294/.399/.465 with seven home runs and 12 stolen bases. Berry points out that Barron was never able to stay healthy at Southern Miss until midway through his junior year; a torn labrum his freshman year set him back significantly. But he finally got healthy last year, then had a breakout summer in the Texas Collegiate League, where he was the MVP.
“He just came back from that summer with all kinds of confidence in the fall, not only at the plate but stealing bases,” Berry said. “His whole game just kind of jumped forward, like we would have liked to see from him earlier, but those injuries have held him back … Being able to fail and learn from it, I think that’s the biggest key. We all know we’re going to fail, but are we going to learn from those failures? Some of them do, some of them don’t.”
There are other Southern Miss veterans who have keyed the team's recent resurgence. Three fifth-year seniors -- pitcher McMahon, shortstop Michael Sterling and catcher Austin Roussel -- endured the program’s down years, and now they are key pieces of USM’s success. Roussel and Sterling are two anchors for a Southern Miss defense that is one of the team’s biggest strengths.
“We’ve had some good shortstops, but Sterling ranks up there with them,” Berry said. “Gol-ly. He’s played [Brian] Dozier-like defense, he’s just been outstanding. He’s a fifth-year senior, and honestly, it’s taken that fifth year to bring that out of him, but it’s come out of him. He anchors that middle; he and [second baseman Nick] Dawson complement each other so well in the middle.”
McMahon is one of this team’s success stories. He did not make a start in his first three seasons at Southern Miss, posting a 6.04 career ERA in 37 relief appearances. This season, he has found a home as the Sunday starter, going 10-1 with a 1.73 ERA in 78 innings over 13 starts. He attacks hitters with a power sinker that can reach 90-92 mph and a hard slider at 83-84 mph, and he gets plenty of groundball outs, playing into the strength of the defense.
“He’s just dripping with confidence and presence when he takes the mound,” Berry said. “It’s a really neat story. I always wanted him to be a closer, because he has a really good arm. I wanted his personality to be more dominating on the mound, wanted him to prepare for that sprint more than the marathon. But his personality is that marathon type of guy. That’s exactly the way he paces himself on the mound, working his own tempo, running his own race. It’s almost been flawless.”
The Southern Miss pitching staff, which has a 3.05 ERA, features good depth, with a lot of different looks from both sides and several quality power arms. Fourth-year junior righthander Cody Carroll, another member of the 2011 recruiting class, brings outstanding stuff to the Friday starter role and has had a solid season, going 4-4 with a 3.01 ERA in 13 starts. Berry said he sits 91-92 and has run his fastball up to 95 mph this year, mixing in a slurve and a changeup. Both Carroll and McMahon are coming off dominant performances last weekend, combining for 13.2 innings of five-hit shutout ball.
Senior Ryan Milton, a junior-college transfer, leads the team with nine saves and features a heavy low-90s fastball and a hard, late cutter. Berry said his "Iron Mike" delivery seems to make his ball get on top of hitters more quickly than they expect. Another senior, righty Christian Talley, has found a home in the bullpen.
Freshman lefthander Kirk McCarty (4-1, 3.47) has taken over a weekend rotation spot. A star quarterback at Hattiesburg’s Oak Grove High, McCarty has a presence and intelligence on the mound, which helps his 87-90 mph fastball and solid curveball play up. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but his advanced feel for pitching makes him tough.
Freshman Taylor Braley has also made a big impact. The 5-foot-11, 252-pounder was a high school teammate of McCarty and played defensive tackle. Berry said he would go watch Oak Grove football games just to marvel at Braley’s work in the trenches — which made him believe Braley had the toughness to be a good player early on at Southern Miss.
“Watching him in high school, it didn’t matter if he was on the mound, at the plate, in the field, he was one of those guys who just dominated,” Berry said. “Football, he was a defensive tackle, and he was undersized, but it didn’t matter, he’d dominate them. They’d have to double-team him. He’s a lot like a Kevin Youkilis, just kind of a weird baseball body — he’s just like a refridgerator, just a short block. When he played football, he’d whip dudes’ ass. When you’d talk to him, he’d say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna get it done, I can tell.’ ”
Braley has taken over the third base job and hit third, ranking second on the team in batting (.309). Junior college transfer Chase Scott, has moved out to left field, a position he’d never played before. He's hitting .304 with a team-best 12 doubles in the cleanup spot.
Junior first baseman Tim Lynch (.333/.419/.560, 9 HR, 31 RBI — all team bests) and senior DH Matt Durst (.306/.342/.457, 5 HR) gives the lineup two more power bats in the middle of the lineup. Lynch, who hit .256 with one homer last year, is one of several Eagles who have taken a huge leap forward this season, changing the complexion of this lineup.
“It’s just hard work. He started as a true freshman for us, has matured. It’s his understanding of the game, understanding of his swing,” Berry said of Lynch. “His defense has continued to improve each year because his body has improved. He’s worked extremely hard in the weight room. He’s basically made himself into a very, very nice baseball player.”