Southern Miss coming together at right time

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It only was a few weeks ago Southern Mississippi was left for dead when it came to making an NCAA postseason appearance.

Now, the Eagles are expected to find their way into a regional.

This season literally has been a tale of two campaigns.

Just a few weeks ago after dropping a road series to Marshall, the Golden Eagles had an overall record of 18-16. But most depressing, the Eagles somehow found a way to be 2-7 in a weaker than usual Conference USA. They were last in the standings.

Photo Scott Berry has his Golden Eagles flying high these days.
(Southern Miss)

Yes, the same Golden Eagles that reached the College World Series last season were last place in their own conference at one point this season.

My, though, how times have changed in short order.

Entering this weekend’s series against Rice, the Golden Eagles are riding an 11-game winning streak and have a record of 29-17, including an 11-7 mark in C-USA. Most importantly, though, the Eagles are back in the hunt for a postseason bid.

“What we have gone through this season certainly has surprised me. I remember just a month ago I was wondering what I was personally doing wrong,” first-year head coach Scott Berry said. “I was wondering what I could to correct this and also trying to figure out how to control the situation. There are some things you can’t control, though.”

What Berry knew he could control was team morale.

Despite the constant failures through the Marshall series, Berry constantly told his players to keep their heads up, relax and take things one game at a time.

Veteran pitcher Todd McInnis, who was an instrumental part of the Golden Eagles’ run to Omaha last season, also rose to the occasion, feeling it was his duty to take control both as the ace pitcher and key leader.

“I think we pressed a little bit early in the season because we didn’t have some key leaders from last season on this team. We weren’t real sure what to expect to be honest with you,” McInnis said. “A lot of the older guys on the current team had to become leaders quick and I was telling the younger guys to go out there with confidence.”

The Golden Eagles have heeded Berry and McInnis’ advice the past few weeks, and have climbed all the way to second place in the conference.

But while the Golden Eagles finally are full of smiles, they realize that with an RPI of 60, there still is plenty of work to do. It starts this weekend against Rice and will continue with Memphis in two weekends and the Conference USA tournament in three weeks.

This team is taking absolutely nothing for granted.

Perhaps some may choose to doubt the Golden Eagles down the stretch. But remember about this time last season, the Eagles were a bubble team not expected to do much in the postseason.

They ended the season at Rosenblatt Stadium.

Berry and the Golden Eagles certainly aren’t making any promises. At this point they would love to just make an NCAA regional.

But they can’t deny some eerie resemblances are present.

The Golden Eagles will be an exciting team to watch down the stretch.

It’s a stark contrast from where this team was a few weeks ago.

“There was never a time going into the season that we weren’t capable of doing what we’re doing right now,” Berry said. “I see the attitude of this team right now the same as the attitude of last year’s club. They’re having some fun and finally relaxing.”

“If you look at the eight teams in Omaha each season, they all buy into that type of philosophy.”


RED HOT

Southern Mississippi – The Golden Eagles have won 11 straight games and have a huge series against Rice coming up this weekend.

Virginia – The red-hot Cavaliers have won 11 straight games and welcome North Carolina to town this weekend.

Arizona State – The Sun Devils are in fantastic shape and winners of nine straight games. This team continues to amaze me.

Georgia Southern – The Eagles have won eight straight games and are showing they really want to earn an at-large bid to an NCAA regional.

Liberty – The Flames could make a huge statement and solidify their at-large postseason berth with a home series win over Coastal Carolina this weekend.

Louisiana-Lafayette – The Ragin’ Cajuns have won seven straight games and are in fantastic shape to make a postseason berth with a high RPI.

Texas – The Longhorns had their 21-game winning streak snapped with a single loss to Kansas State. UT, of course, bounced back to win the road series.


ICE COLD

Ohio State – The Buckeyes definitely need ace pitcher Alex Wimmers back after losing three of their last ten games.

Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights have gone from regional contender to absolutely nothing at all the past few weeks.

Virginia Military – Remember when the Keydets were in good shape for an at-large bid? Yeah, let’s just say that is far from the case these days.

Missouri State – The Bears are having a season to forget in the Missouri Valley, having lost seven of their last ten and sitting in last place.

Utah – The Utes have been unable to capitalize on their postseason berth last season. They also have lost nine of their last ten games.

Arizona – The Wildcats are down to .500 in the Pac-0 and are losers of seven of their last ten games, including a series loss to Cal State Bakersfield.

Western Kentucky – The Hilltoppers now will have a tough time making a postseason berth after falling to sixth in the Sun Belt the past few weeks.


WEEKLY STORYLINES

Coastal Carolina has important weekend ahead – The Chanticleers have absolutely dominated the Big South so far this season, but their toughest test in conference comes on the road against Liberty, a team that will either claim the Big South automatic berth or make an at-large appearance. The Chants are a national seed if the season ended today. However, a series loss to the Flames this weekend likely would put the Chants in a precarious situation considering they don’t have a marquee series win to their credit. It’s a very important weekend for both programs.

Miami and Georgia Tech butt heads – Not only does this series feature highly-ranked teams, it also features two teams still hoping to get back in the mix for a national seed. Tech is probably out of the equation at this point in the season, but the Hurricanes are still somewhat in the mix with a 12-7 record against RPI Top 50 teams and a solid 23-10 record against RPI Top 100 teams. The ‘Canes and Jackets have little room for error to stay in national seed contention. That is why the weekend is huge.

South Carolina and Arkansas in a huge series – Speaking of potential national seeds, keep a close eye on the three-game set between the Gamecocks and Hogs this weekend. The Gamecocks travel to Fayetteville, Ark., to face the Hogs. The Gamecocks took a small step back last weekend with a road series loss to Kentucky. UA, meanwhile, took a road series from Ole Miss. The loser of this series will have some work to do the final weekend and in the SEC tournament to be a national seed. The winner of this series, though, likely is in very solid shape.

North Carolina on life support – Before the season began, the series between the Tar Heels and Cavaliers appeared to be one of the best of the season. That is no longer is the case, thanks to the Tar Heels. North Carolina has a huge weekend ahead. It is very much on the bad side of the postseason bubble when it comes to earning an at-large bid. To say the least, the Tar Heels need an incredibly strong finish to make an NCAA regional. Win one against Virginia and take care of Virginia Tech at home and the Tar Heels have something to play for in the ACC tournament. Lose all three games to the Cavaliers this weekend and UNC is in deeper trouble.


MID-MAJOR SPOTLIGHT

San Diego coach Rich Hill doesn’t like to look into the crystal ball. He’s much more concerned about the present.

But also don’t blame him if he can’t help but to be excited about the next few weeks.

Photo Rich Hill’s Toreros are playing a solid brand of baseball these days.
(San Diego)

The Toreros put together a dicey non-conference resume before conference action began. But since WCC play started, the Toreros have been a completely different team. They are 31-17 overall, including an amazing 15-0 in conference action.

Against previously red-hot Portland last weekend, the Toreros’ weekend rotation of Kyle Blair, Sammy Solis and AJ Griffin was simply phenomenal.

Hill discussed his excellent weekend rotation, the Portland series and his team’s postseason chances.

Rogers: The weekend rotation was fantastic against Portland last weekend. Can you talk about the job Kyle Blair, Sammy Solis and AJ Griffin did against the Pilots?

Hill: We went four games and only gave up four runs, all on solo homers. I think Tyler Kincaid, our new pitching coach, is doing a very nice job with some great arms. He has slowly got them to progress to the point where they’re peaking at the right time. I think we’re going to head into June with the pitching staff exactly where we had hoped it would be. Our three weekend starters put together performances against Portland that were as good as any I’ve ever seen. To do what they did against a good team on the road was very impressive.

Rogers: In terms of sheer talent, your thoughts on Blair, Solis and Griffin? Also, how successful do you believe they will be at the next level?

Hill: All three guys have all the tools to be successful at the next level. They all can throw in the low 90s and their work ethic really is something that stands out to me. The maturity level with those guys has really spiked and all the ingredients are there to have a wealth of success. They’re still young guys and will have to learn the pro game against some pro hitters. But they’re ready for the next level.

Rogers: The team started the season on somewhat of a slow note. Now the squad seems to be rolling. What has been the difference the past few weeks?

Hill: We always play an extremely tough schedule, so I think that has a lot to do with our struggles early in the season. We went on the road to Coastal Carolina, we played Rice here and we were on the road a lot. You know us, we’re always going to be a challenging non-conference schedule. I’m definitely not going to evaluate our team on the non-conference record. From a physical side of things, we moved Chris Engell to third base and Tony Strazzara is doing a nice job at second base. It also has helped us that Zach Walters has gotten healthy. He tore a ligament in his thumb, but now is back and fielding around .990. I think our starters have gotten in a groove and allowed our pitchers to go past the 100-pitch limit in outings. Everything started to fall in place once conference began, but I still think our best days are ahead.

Rogers: You have had some great pitching staffs in your tenure at San Diego. How would you rate this year’s staff against some the past few years?

Hill: I think it’s right up there with the top staffs that we have had. The depth with this unit is very solid. All three of our weekend starters are Friday night type of guys. We have a unique luxury in that regard. You have two guys in the bullpen that are lights out and eventually will be big league pitchers. You hate to compare our guys to some of the past staffs with guys like Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski, but the overall depth and synergy we have from starting pitchers to relievers is impressive.

Rogers: You mentioned new pitching coach Tyler Kincaid. How has he done this season?

Hill: He has made a definite huge impact on our coaching staff. I think he is a brilliant X’s and O’s type of guy. He has a great demeanor for a pitching coach and our players and coaches really like and respect him. He walked into a situation with a very veteran pitching staff and didn’t have to force many things on our guys. He wasn’t saying it was my way or the highway. He has developed strong relationships and gotten down to teaching things. He wanted to build them up where they were peaking in June. The plan is right on course, too.

Rogers: The offense also is doing a nice job this season with a .316 batting average. Which guys from that unit really have surprised this season?

Hill: I think our offense starts and ends with James Meador. He turned down a chance to go pro to come back for his senior campaign. He once again is hitting over .500 in conference play. Guys that are absolute gamers include Chris Engell and Nick McCoy. Both guys are fifth-year seniors and are doing great jobs. There were times in their career when they were taking notes in the stands. Now they’re premier players in the WCC. It has been a pretty special season for so many guys.

Rogers: You make another NCAA postseason appearance this season. Do you feel like this team has “it” when it comes to going the distance in the postseason?

Hill: You know, some say if you have one eye in the past and one eye in the future, you’re completely blind in the presence. All we’re focused on is the present. We’re just ready to prepare for Pepperdine a conference series this weekend. If you listen to Alabama football coach Nick Saban and Texas baseball coach Augie Garrido, there’s a reason why they’re so successful. They’re constantly on staying present and getting better today and not worrying about tomorrow. They’re worried about process-oriented goals. That’s exactly where we’re at right now.


ROGERS' REACTION

What does South Carolina need to do to remain a national seed?

The final couple of weeks of the regular season and the SEC tournament will be very important for the Gamecocks. Despite dropping a tough road series to Kentucky last weekend, the Gamecocks still have an impressive resume. South Carolina has 10 wins against RPI Top 25 teams and a 16-8 mark against RPI Top 50 teams. The only thing holding back the Gamecocks is an RPI of 19. But still, the co-SEC leader and a team with the resume of their stature would get a national seed. South Carolina probably needs to finish 3-3 in their final two series against Arkansas and Florida and do well in Hoover, Ala.

Who would win National Coach of the Year honors if the season ended today?

Oregon coach George Horton certainly has done a solid job of turning the Ducks into a regional contender, and Virginia coach Brian O’Connor has handled his program’s high expectations with ease. But as of right now, the easy pick would be Arizona State interim coach Tim Esmay. Esmay took over after an unfortunate situation. In a situation that easily could’ve turned into a negative for the Sun Devils, Esmay had no trouble turning the situation into a positive and magical season. Esmay has kept the program together and flourished this season. He deserves it right now.

Does Connecticut deserve to host an NCAA regional?

With the limited scheduling opportunities and other aspects, such as the RPI, always working against teams in the region, it’s very impressive to see the Huskies with an RPI of 20. The Huskies don’t exactly have a bunch of wins against RPI Top 25 or 50 teams, but have taken care of business in their games against RPI Top 100 teams with a 10-4 record. The NCAA has shown the past few seasons that it wants to expand the game into other regions of the country. The NCAA now has an opportunity to give a Big East team with a high RPI an NCAA regional host. Barring some bad losses down the stretch I would be very surprised if Connecticut doesn’t host. It just makes too much sense.


LINEUP CARD

Photo Mississippi’s Drew Pomeranz had a pectoral strain but will be back on the mound this weekend.
(Associated Press)

Long-time Long Beach State head coach Mike Weathers announced his retirement earlier this week, effective at the end of the season. Though the Dirtbags had the option to go on a national search for a new coach, they opted to promote associate head coach Troy Buckley to the title, effective next season. We’re a little surprised by Weathers’ retirement. We’re also a little surprised the Dirtbags aren’t willing to test the waters … Mississippi left-handed pitcher Drew Pomeranz suffered a pectoral strain in his last start against Arkansas. Though Pomeranz showed signs of the injury the Saturday following the injury, he now appears to be fine. Pomeranz will pitch Friday against Alabama, but will be lifted from the contest if he shows any signs of the strain … Cal State Fullerton two-way player has been dealing with some elbow soreness and arm fatigue the past few weeks. The symptoms raised a huge red flag to the Titans, who had Pill tested earlier this week for arm damage. Fortunately, Pill’s test came back negative and tests showed no structural damage. Pill will continue to rehab his arm and elbow. The Titans haven’t announced when he might pitch again … Ohio State is in the hunt for a new head coach, and at least two sources have indicated LSU assistant coach David Grewe, who previously was the head coach at Michigan State, is in the mix for a position. Grewe wouldn’t be a bad hire for the Buckeyes, but we’ll see if anything materializes from those rumors … Vanderbilt hosted Louisville on Tuesday in a contest that was free to spectators. However, the Commodores received donations, food, water and clothing for victims of the harsh floods that hit Middle Tennessee a couple of weekends ago. Vandy raised approximately $22,000 for the flood relief effort … Ohio State All-American pitcher Alex Wimmers has missed his last two starts because of a mild hamstring strain. His status this week also is unclear, but Ohio State officials said he will be making the trip with the team to Iowa this weekend and could see action. The Buckeyes desperately need Wimmers back in the mix to have a chance to win the Big Ten tournament in a few weeks … UC Irvine outfielder left a game against Cal Poly on Sunday with a wrist injury after he was hit by a pitch. Olson didn’t return to the offensive lineup against UCLA on Tuesday. The Anteaters, though, still won the important midweek contest. Also worth noting, ace pitcher Daniel Bibona will miss his start this weekend because of inflamed rib muscles. The injury, though, is not serious.


THINKING POSTSEASON

The SEC – The NCAA Selection Committee could have some very difficult decisions to make about the SEC in a few weeks. The conference certainly is a great bet to earn eight regional bids. However, which teams will make up that eight, and could the conference actually get nine or ten bids? Tennessee wasn’t in the postseason mix a few weeks ago, but now is in the SEC tournament and likely would make a regional if the season ended today. That leaves potential ninth and tenth bid teams Alabama and Kentucky waiting in the wings. I have a feeling the SEC gets nine bids before it’s said and done.

National seed locks – There still only are three national seed locks: Arizona State, Texas and Virginia. Florida is very close to being a national seed. The Gators, who currently are tied with South Carolina for the overall SEC lead, are 33-12 and have 15 wins against RPI Top 25 teams. The Gators also are 24-11 against RPI top 100 teams. UF finishes the season with series against Georgia and South Carolina. Don’t be surprised if the Gators go 5-1 or 4-2 against that remaining schedule.

TCU – There are plenty of us out there with Coastal Carolina jotted down as a national seed, but what about the Horned Frogs? They actually have a pretty compelling case, perhaps even ahead of Coastal Carolina. For starters, the Frogs have a road series win over Cal State Fullerton. Coastal doesn’t have a series win anywhere near as impressive as that. Also, the Frogs are 11-6 against RPI Top 50 versus 9-5 for Coastal. Also worth noting, Coastal is 16-5 against RPI Top 100 teams and TCU is 17-8 against RPI Top 100 teams. The only difference right now is Coastal has an RPI of seven and TCU has an RPI of 16. However, the race between these two teams should be a tossup at the least.

Connecticut – There continue to be plenty of questions about the Huskies as a potential NCAA regional host. The Huskies still lead the Big East standings. The Big East, you must remember, actually is ahead of the Big West in conference RPI. The Huskies also have a 4-4 record against RPI Top 50 teams, but have a record of 10-4 against RPI Top 100 teams. More impressive is the fact the Huskies are 39-10 overall. The Huskies may not have the resume of other regional hosts, but geographic and scheduling considerations should get this program a regional assuming it finishes the regular season on a positive note.

North Carolina – The last couple of weekends of the regular season couldn’t be more important for the Tar Heels. The Tar Heels have gone from four straight College World Series appearances to not being sure if they will make an NCAA regional. UNC has an RPI of 29, but that is where its resume stops in the impressive category. The Tar Heels still are 3-10 against RPI Top 25 and 50 teams. Additionally, they’re 12-14 against RPI Top 100 teams. UNC must win a game against Virginia, take at least two games from Virginia Tech, and also make the ACC tournament and do well to make an NCAA regional. That’s the harsh reality of its situation.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, May 13, 2010