By Natchez Democrat/MCT
HOUSTON – Coming into the 2010 Conference USA Baseball Championship, the Southern Miss team knew it had to put forth a good showing in the championship tournament in order to have a chance to advance to the postseason.
After splitting their first two games at the University of Houston’s Cougar Field, the Golden Eagles rattled off back-to-back wins, including a 7-4 victory over regular-season C-USA champion Rice to win the league’s postseason title and earn an automatic berth to next week’s NCAA Regionals.
”I knew we had the ability to do it but for some reason we were kind of stuck in a rut and we were able to get ourselves out of that rut, I am very proud of the character of this team right now,” head coach Scott Berry said.
With the win, Southern Miss earns its second C-USA Championship title-game win and first since 2003 while the Golden Eagles improve to 35-22 on the year. The trip to the NCAAs will be USM’s 11th all time and their eighth in a row. The Eagles will learn of their postseason destinations on Monday when the NCAA Selection Committee announces the field on Monday at 11:30 (CDT) on ESPN.
Southern Miss pitcher Scott Copeland, who tossed 8.0 shutout innings in an 8-3 win over Memphis in the championship’s opening round, came out of the bullpen for the first time all season on Saturday and came through in a big way for his team.
Entering the ballgame with the Golden Eagles clinging to a 5-4 lead and facing a two-out bases-loaded situation, Copeland struck out Rice centerfielder Scott Sultzbaugh to end the threat and gave up just two walks the rest of the way. Over the final 4.1 innings, Copeland struck out three, did not give up a hit and kept Rice off the scoreboard.
”He (Scott) was determined tonight and did not want anyone else to have the ball. Rice was swinging the bat as well as anyone on the in country right now and our two guys (Copeland and McInnis) came in and neutralized that,” Berry added.
The win was his 11th of the year against no losses and Copeland was named C-USA Championship Most Valuable Player on a vote of media members. For the championship, Copeland struck out eight, walked three and scattered four hits in 12.1 shutout frames.
He was joined on the C-USA Baseball Championship All-Tournament Team by fellow Golden Eagles’ B.A. Vollmuth and Taylor Walker. Rice placed a championship-high seven players on the all-tourney team — Sultzbaugh, catcher Diego Seastrunk, shortstop Rick Hague, third baseman Anthony Rendon, pitcher Jared Rogers, and outfielders Michael Fuda and Chad Mozingo. Houston designated hitter M.P. Cokinos, East Carolina pitcher Seth Maness and Memphis hurler Brennon Martin round out the All-Tournament Team honorees.
Walker was the lone Golden Eagle to record a multiple-hit outing, going 2-for-5 with and RBI and a run scored. Vollmuth added a home run, but the day belonged to Copeland.
Southern Miss wasted little time getting on the scoreboard as left fielder Kameron Brunty and Vollmuth sandwiched walks around a bunt single by Walker to load the bases with nobody out, and two runs scored on a fielding error by Owls’ second baseman Michael Ratteree on a sharply-hit ball off the bat of Golden Eagle designated hitter Adam Doleac.
A sacrifice bunt by first baseman Mark Ellis moved Vollmuth and Doleac up 90 feet, and the pair came around to score on an RBI-groundout to second by Dillon Day and a single by third baseman Joey Archer to stake Southern Miss to a 4-0 lead.
Rice got a one-out solo home run by Hague to cut the deficit to three in the home half of the inning and the score remained 4-1 over the next three innings. Vollmuth’s homered to open the fifth, but Southern Miss’ four-run lead nearly evaporated altogether in the bottom of the inning.
Golden Eagles’ starter Todd McInnis quickly dispatched the first two Rice batters to step to the plate in the fifth, but Rendon sparked a two-out rally with a single up the middle. Seastrunk followed with a base hit of his own to put runners on the corners, and Ratterree ripped a two-run double down the left field line to make it a 5-3 contest. The Owls got another run in the inning when Comertoa singled to right to bring home Ratterree, and Fuda walked before Copeland entered the game and shut things down.
The only base runners Copeland allowed came on two-out walks in the seventh and eighth innings, and the Southern Miss offense was able to stretch the lead late. Catcher Travis Graves singled and scored on a Walker single in the top of the sixth and Mark Ellis added an unearned run in the seventh via Rice’s second error of the contest to account for the final score.
Rice starter Boogie Anagnostou was saddled with the loss after giving up four runs (one earned) on two hits and three walks in a one-plus inning start. Abe Gonzales gave up two more runs on four hits and two base on balls over the next 4.2 frames, and the final tally came off J.T. Chargois.