JACKSON – It’s tough for Southern Miss players to sort out the emotions that led them to an appearance in this weekend’s Atlanta Regional.
At the heart of it, though, is no one wanted to let down retiring coach Corky Palmer. You won’t hear Southern Miss players shouting, “Win one for Corky,” as they take the field against Elon on Friday at Georgia Tech, but there’s no question disappointing Palmer would’ve been a major bummer.
“You could tell he was upset about it,” Southern Miss ace Todd McInnis said of Palmer’s retirement announcement back in April. “We just all took it upon ourselves to step it up for him.”
Have they ever. The Golden Eagles (35-23) stormed into the postseason, extending the school record to seven straight regional appearances. They became just one of 14 teams with at least seven straight regional bids by winning seven of eight games to make it to the Conference USA championship game. And though they lost 8-6 to Rice, they played themselves into an at-large bid.
Though the draw is tough — Elon (40-16) leads the nation with 131 home runs — few teams are as hot as Southern Miss going into regional play.
Not bad for a team that appeared out of the postseason just weeks ago after the last of four separate three-game losing streaks.
The emotions during that period were tough to deal with. There was the sadness over Palmer’s leaving, the disappointment of underachieving by a senior-laden team and the frustration of injuries that kept three of the team’s best players shelved for much of the year.
Palmer’s not really sure what caused things to click for the Golden Eagles, but is hesitant to attach his name to the turnaround.
“The seniors and I are close,” Palmer said. “I’ve been here with them four years, some of them five years. They’ve been on regional teams and all them guys have played well. We’ve got a good relationship. But I think we created a tradition at Southern Miss with six in a row and I think them guys said we don’t want to be the ones to break it. We’ve got to move.”
Few coaches understand the history of their programs like Palmer, a Southern Miss graduate who grew up in Hattiesburg and spent his entire 30-year coaching career in state. He has the Golden Eagles on a stretch of seven straight seasons with 35 or more wins, including four years of more than 40 wins, and will try to build on his 453 wins this weekend.
Yet this season was a disappointment in many ways for the coach. Southern Miss was just 20-16 at home, and few coaches are tied as closely to the home fans.
“There’s so many people in these stands that know me when I played Dixie youth ball, older people that are still coming to the games,” Palmer said. “So it’s been kind of unique and a good situation.”
But not one Palmer wanted to see end in disappointment. Turns out the players didn’t want it to end that way either. In the end, they simply responded in the way Palmer has trained them to over the years.
“I think it’s his hard-nose approach,” said associate coach Scott Berry, who will replace Palmer. “He really challenges the kids. He’s old school in the fact that he knocks you down and expects you to get back up. You hope they do get back up. That’s what we’re looking for in kids. We compete.”
That competitive spirit showed in the Conference USA tournament, which was played in Hattiesburg for the first time. They started with a 15-4 thumping of Tulane and didn’t falter till playing nationally ranked Rice.
“It seems like all the electricity came back,” Palmer said. “We made the plays. The fans were in it from the first pitch. A little of the magic came back on the field and in the stands.”
Palmer hopes he can dust the team with just a little more of that magic this weekend. There’s one last step he’d like to take before he retires.
“People ask me my mindset this weekend,” he said. “Well, we’ve never been past a regional. We need to take it a step further. That’s my mindset right now. I haven’t even thought about it being my last game.”
Chris Talbott/The Associated Press