Things to look for this weekend when – weather permitting! — the NCAA Division I schools launch their season: At Mississippi State, ranked in the top 10 in just about every preseason poll, J.T. Ginn is the acknowledged ace, coming off a season that saw the right-hander claim national freshman of the year honors. But almost every other significant contributor from the 2019 College World Series pitching staff is gone. It’ll be interesting to see how roles start to shake out in the opening series against Wright State at Dudy Noble Field. … At Ole Miss, there is a lot of buzz about top-ranked Louisville coming to Oxford for the opening series, but there might be just as much about Rebels freshmen Jerrion Ealy and John Rhys Plumlee. What will the roles be for the football players doing double duty this spring and how much impact will they have on the diamond? Both were highly touted baseball prospects in high school – some considered Ealy the best prep player in the state – and both play center field. … At Southern Miss, the playing surface at Taylor Park is now artificial (Field Turf), which will play a little differently than grass and dirt. The Golden Eagles will break in the new field against Murray State in a three-game set. Minus Matt Wallner and a couple of other mashers from last year’s C-USA Tournament champs, the lineup will also have a new look. “We’re probably going to be a little bit different team in the fact that we’re going to have to manufacture some runs. On-base percentage is going to be very crucial for us,” coach Scott Berry said at media day last month. P.S. In the SWAC, Jackson State is at home against Southern Illinois, Alcorn State opens with Prairie View in New Orleans in the Andre Dawson Tournament (formerly the Urban Invitational) and Mississippi Valley State travels to McNeese State. … Alcorn’s second game in New Orleans, against Southern University on Saturday, will be televised by MLB Network at 1 p.m. … On the Trustmark Park College Series docket: USM and State play in Pearl on March 4, USM and Ole Miss meet there on March 31 and the Ole Miss-State Governor’s Cup clash is set for April 21. … Mississippi State will play Texas Tech in a two-game series at MGM Park in Biloxi on March 10-11. The matchup features teams that have gone to the College World Series in each of the last two seasons. … The C-USA Tournament is slated for Biloxi’s MGM Park May 20-24 of this year, its fourth year at the Double-A Shuckers’ home. A scheduling glitch was resolved when Overtime Sports, which is currently managing the C-USA tourney, reportedly agreed to pay the Shuckers to move a Southern League game from May 20 to another date (May 17) as part of a doubleheader. There is some question as to whether the C-USA event will continue in Biloxi beyond 2020.
The dust has settled and things are chill again in Hattiesburg – we assume – after what was hailed as one of the great moments in Taylor Park history on Sunday. So much to remember from Southern Miss’ 2-1 victory over Rice, which clinched just the second series win ever for the Golden Eagles over the perennially powerful Owls. There was, of course, Daniel Keating’s pinch-hit single that delivered the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. Hunter Slater’s walk to start the ninth. Tracy Hadley’s bunt. Kirk McCarty going seven-plus. Chuckie Robinson belting a home run. Nick Sandlin getting the last four outs. USM climbed out of the postgame dogpile and into first place alone in C-USA. The Eagles are also climbing in the national polls. But Eagle Nation needs to remember this, too: USM went 35-16-1 in 2015 and did not get an NCAA Tournament invitation. The 2016 Eagles, at 29-12, need to keep winning, starting Tuesday when nationally ranked Louisiana-Lafayette comes to town. Sunday’s win over Rice could be one of those defining moments that successful teams like to look back on. But it’ll lose much of its luster if the Eagles can’t ride the momentum over the next few weeks.
In baseball, good things come to those who … pitch. And Southern Miss can pitch. The Golden Eagles (28-16-1, 13-10 C-USA) have a staff ERA of 3.03, which ranks among the top 20 in the nation. They’ve got seven shutouts, tied for fifth-most in NCAA Division I. They are coming off a three-game home sweep of Marshall in which they limited the Thundering Herd to two runs. None of the Eagles’ three starters allowed a run. Cody Carroll, the league pitcher of the week, threw a three-hitter. James McMahon, now 9-1 with a 1.88 ERA, worked six scoreless innings, and Kirk McCarty (4-1, 2.58) was unscathed over 7 2/3. Tim Lynch has swung a big stick (.331, nine homers, 30 RBIs) and three other regulars are over .300. But it’s USM’s pitching that impresses the most, especially in this season of the livelier ball. At one point during the Marshall series, the staff’s streak of consecutive innings without allowing an earned run reached 39. “I’ve been (coaching) 31 years, so I’m not going to say I haven’t (seen such a streak),” coach Scott Berry told the Hattiesburg American. “But that’s a pretty good string, I know that.” Light-hitting Charlotte comes to Hattiesburg this weekend for a conference series at Taylor Park, where USM is 16-7 — and where the C-USA Tournament will be held May 20-24. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first USM team to make the NCAA Tournament field. That Hill Denson-coached club included Damon Pollard, Scotty Jurich, Todd Nace, Kerry Valrie, Greg Cole and Kenny Graves, all of whom were among the group in town for a reunion over the weekend. It would be a fitting tribute if the current club also earned a regional bid. That pitching certainly gives them hope.