PEARL – Scott Berry has heard two designations he finds very important used in the same sentence: Southern Mississippi and national seed.
With a ratings percentage index (RPI) ranking that has reached as high as No. 2, expectations follow.
So does the undivided attention of every remaining opponent, a fact that excites Barry, the Golden Eagles’ second-year coach, whose team plays in a deep and competitive Conference USA.
That concern was underscored this weekend when Southern Miss dropped two of three games at Memphis.
“When I hear that (national seed) talk, I get a smile on my face but just for a second, because then I remember how humbling this sport is,” said Berry, a long-time assistant to former coach Corky Palmer, who had Southern Miss in the College World Series two years ago, the final season of his 12-year career.
“We’ve played good baseball to the halfway point. We’ve played a very tough schedule, our RPI has shown that. You can’t play dogs all the time and get that RPI,” Berry said. “Our focus now is on the second half of the season, maintaining that. We’ll continue to play strong competition.”
His No. 22-ranked Golden Eagles (23-8, 6-3 C-USA) take on Ole Miss (20-13, 5-7 SEC) tonight at 6:30 at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
Southern Miss defeated Ole Miss two weeks ago, 4-3 in 10 innings in Hattiesburg. The Golden Eagles scored the winning run on a Rebels’ outfield error.
Following the two losses at Memphis, Southern Miss has an RPI ranking of 8, which will keep them in the national seed discussion when the time comes.
The eight national seeds are guaranteed a home-field path through the NCAA tournament to the College World Series in Omaha.
“This is what we’ve worked for,” senior outfielder Tyler Koelling said. “We have the talent to do it, and so far we’ve been doing it. We have to get back on track. There’s no reason we can’t be a national seed.”
Southern Miss, Rice, UAB and Houston are all tied atop the C-USA standings with a .667 conference win percentage.
The Golden Eagles are hitting .307 and pitching with a 3.59 ERA.
They displayed their power in Sunday’s 8-5 win over Memphis with two home runs, one a grand slam by Adam Doleac.
“Defense is what’s put us in a hole,” Berry said. “We’re still among the top teams in the country in double plays turned, but the bottom line is we need to clean that up.”
The Golden Eagles’ .966 fielding percentage ranks sixth in C-USA.
Not much yelling
Berry was an easy choice to replace the successful Palmer when the time came. The two had been together back to their days of leading Meridian Community College to junior college world series appearances.
“He’s an encourager,” Koelling said. “There aren’t too many times he yells and screams. Most of the time he talks to us like young men. If you do something wrong he’ll tell you, and if you do something right he’ll let you know as well.”
Koelling says you can see Berry’s fingerprints on the program with increased emphasis on “small ball,” but Berry shrugs and attributes that to the demands of the modified bats.
“The game has changed across the country,” Berry said.
Perhaps, but the Golden Eagles have managed to maintain the consistency of play – to maintain winning – through a coaching transition.
In rebuilding in 2010 they were 36-24 and won the Conference USA tournament title, a program first. The Golden Eagles were eliminated on the road in the regional round of the NCAA tournament. If they continue the pace they’ve set in the first half of this season, they’ll be at home for a regional this time.
A two-game sweep of Ole Miss would be a nice bullet point on the Southern Miss resume.
As much as the program has accomplished to stand a part from its SEC brethren, winning against Ole Miss and Mississippi State is still important.
“Our program is known nationwide,” Berry said, “but when you know you’re playing someone good and you walk away with a win, there’s a sense of pride. I think we’re respected by our peers in the state the same way.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal