Southern Miss baseball will be kicking off official practice for the spring season in just 10 days. It is hard to believe first pitch is just around the corner, but the coaches and players enter the 2016 season with a lot of optimism and momentum off an outstanding fall season.
The Golden Eagle program and success go hand in hand, with last season marking the 14th consecutive winning season with a 36-18-1 mark. However, there has been a bit of a drought that the Golden Eagles are not used to, having missed the post-season NCAA tournament for a few years in a row. They look to end that streak and get back to their post-season winning ways this year, and things are shaping up nicely for the 2016 team.
Returning are 8 position players from a year ago, including 5 starters. While the Eagles must replace a few from the starting rotation, they appear to have their Friday starter locked up and the bullpen will be bolstered from some newcomers that impressed in the fall.
Also, fans coming to Pete Taylor Park in the spring will see a nice upgrade to the outfield wall. Padding has been added that not only gives the outfield a fresh, clean look, but adds an important element that Coach Berry is most pleased with.
"There was a safety concern that we don't have to worry about anymore," Coach Berry told GoldenEaglePride.com. "With the way the wall is now we don't have to worry about guys crashing into it and getting hurt. Also, of course, it gives the outfield more of that wow factor and makes our park even more beautiful. It is very aesthetically pleasing and we are real happy with the way it turned out.
"All this was made possible by the golf tournament and the great turnout and generous donations that we had in the fall."
On the field, Coach Berry was very pleased with the way his guys performed in the fall. He said they were able to accomplish all they set out to do and have the momentum they need heading into the spring.
"I thought the guys performed well and the fall allowed us to get a real good look at our young kids and newcomers and who is going to be able to contribute this spring," Coach Berry added. "Our pitchers performed well and we didn't have any major injuries which hasn't always been the case for us. We have some young arms that really impressed and I like the look of our team and where we are right now.
"We didn't push our pitchers to hard because we have a good idea of who our starting rotation is going to be. We just wanted them to stay sharp but we need them to save their arms for the fall. The main goal was to get a look at who else can contribute out of the pen."
Returning for the Golden Eagles and odds on favorite to be the Friday starter is Kirk McCarty who went 4-1 with a 4.09 ERA last season. The lefty got his feet wet as a freshman last year and is ready to take the reigns as the go to starter. Saturday's starter looks like it will be Jake Winston, who appears ready to take that spot in his senior season. Seniors Nick Johnson and Cord Cockrell will compete for the Sunday starter, that is still up for grabs. Johnson and Cockrell were a combined 7-0 last season.
Out of the bullpen, one budding star appears to be freshman Nick Sandlin from Evans, GA. Sandlin has a sidewinder motion that caused all kinds of problems for USM hitters in the fall during scrimmages. "I relate him almost to a David Cone because of all the angles he can throw at you," Coach Berry said. "He was so tough to hit and will be one of the anchors of our bullpen in the spring. We were very pleased with what we saw from him in the fall."
"Others who impressed out of our newcomers that we expect to contribute were Houston Case who is a JuCo transfer from Hinds CC, as well as Cooper Jones from Pensacola," Berry added. "We are expecting a lot out of those guys. We also have Cody Livingston and Luke Lowery that are both very tough on lefties and can be go to guys because of their experience. We will be looking to them for leadership."
Around the horn, the Eagles return the corner infielders that also will be in the heart of the line-up. "Tim Lynch is one of the leaders of this team and we have very high expectations for him," Berry said.
"Tim has been around here a while and started some even as a freshman. He wasn't around as much in the fall because of his class schedule, but we expect him to be our leader in the infield and in the line-up. He's worked extremely hard in the summer to continue to improve his swing and we feel like he's going to have another big year for us. Also, Taylor Braley returns at 3rd after a strong freshman season. He's just going to get better and better with experience. He had a solid fall defensively too."
At short, the Eagles must replace team leader Michael Sterling, and there are two who will likely compete there. Senior Nick Dawson is coming off a good season and will get plenty of looks there as well as JuCo transfer Tracey Hadley who is coming in from Pearl River CC. Second base also could have some competition as Berry was impressed with Matthew Guidrey of Oak Grove and Storme Cooper who comes in as a freshman from Missouri.
In the outfield, Dylan Burdeaux anchors things down in RF as well as the heart of the batting order. He hit .283 with 4 HR's last season, and had an outstanding summer where he teamed with Tim Lynch. In left, Chase Scott should get the start after a big season last year. CF looks like it will go to Jake Sandlin, brother of Nick, who showed very good speed and handles the bat well.
"Jake Sandlin was a guy who really emerged and showed us a lot in the fall," Berry said. "He is fast and gets an excellent jump on the ball. He also puts the ball in play and sprays it around the field, making him a tough out. We feel like he's going to be a really good one for us out there."
Also providing some depth in the OF will be James Lear, a transfer from Northwest MS JuCo where he hit .340 for former Golden Eagle player and current NW coach Mark Carson. Lear is an excellent athlete who played some soccer in high school, and has really good speed.
Taking over full time catching duties will be Chuckie Robinson, who started to come into his own last season. Robinson was another who had a terrific summer and was named as a top 10 prospect out of the New England baseball league. With his valuable experience, Robinson will only continue to get better calling games and should provide a steady bat in the line-up as well.
One other thing Coach Berry pointed out was the improvements in the strength and conditioning program. Jack Wilson took over as the head man for the baseball team, and Berry was very pleased with the progress made.
"One of the big things is having our own facility and Coach Wilson has used that to his advantage," Berry said.
"I've seen a difference in the approach to working out. Our guys are doing more on their own than every before and their attitude about it is terrific this year. They are owning up to it, and that has to come from them. Coach Wilson is a great encourager who is very specific in his training. Also, strides have been made in nutrion and overall positivity. I am looking forward to seeing how the time with him will help us going forward and I feel like we will are in great hands."
Southern Miss will begin official spring practice January 29th, and will get ready for the quick turnaround and first game at the Pete on February 19th at 4:00.