HATTIESBURG -- Snow fell softly at Pete Taylor Park on Thursday afternoon, just eight days before the start of the Southern Miss baseball season.
"Those are big flakes," said starting pitcher Conor Fisk, a senior who hails from Brown Deer, Wis. "I came down here to avoid this stuff."
The Golden Eagles have missed four days of practice because of inclement weather this year, pitchers have thrown on the artificial turf of USM's football stadium and the team worked out Thursday at an indoor practice facility a few miles down the road from The Pete.
All that doesn't matter. The first game is Feb. 14 when Stony Brook comes to Hattiesburg for a three-game weekend series.
"I've been very pleased with the way our practices have gone," fifth-year Southern Miss coach Scott Berry (137-94) said. "We return four position players, starters that we return. And with (last season's top pitchers, both of whom went to the pros) Jake Drehoff and Andrew Pierce gone, that leaves us some question marks on the weekend.
"We have a bunch of young men who are going to have to learn quick because we don't have a lot of experience."
There are some nagging injuries at this time, too, and designated hitter Jared Bales' departure earlier this week due to a back problem poses even more concerns.
Still, expectations are high.
"The talent is there," said Mason Robbins, the junior right-fielder who has batted better than .300 the two previous seasons. "We want to get back to a (NCAA) regional."
After reaching the College World Series in 2009, Southern Miss has not made the NCAA Tournament the past two years.
"We were 11-17 in our first 28 games last year," Berry said. "In the second half, we went 19-11 but got beat by Rice in the Conference USA championship. Our goal this season is to start off well and continue to be consistent."
Matt Durst, a junior transfer from Northeast Texas Community College, is expected to catch most games. Berry said Durst will bat cleanup.
Sophomore Tim Lynch will return at first base and defensive whiz Nick Dawson, also a sophomore, will be at second base. Junior Michael Sterling, who was injured much of last season, will play shortstop and Bradley Roney will be back at third. Roney could wind up as the closer on the mound, but Berry said that is not settled at this point.
Junior Austin Roussell, who hit .330 last year in starting 28 games, will play left field, junior Connor Barron, finally injury-free, will be in center and Robbins is back in right field.
Sophomore Ryan Ellis, freshmen Chuckie Robinson and Dylan Burdeaux are candidates for designated hitter.
"We've swung the bats pretty well this spring," Berry said. "We've hit more gaps, and hit more balls over the wall. We've got bigger kids. Offensively, I'm pleased."
Berry said he wanted to see his pitchers this weekend before deciding on starters for the Stony Brook series, but Fisk is expected to be a starter. Sophomore Nick Johnson, Christian Talley, out of Hancock High and Pearl River CC, sophomore Jake Winston, senior A.J. Glasshof and sophomore Taylor Nunez are others probably included in the mix for a starting job.
Other upperclassmen pitchers include James McMahon, Jay Myrick, Luke Lowery, Daniel Wineski, Ryan Milton, Sean Buchholz, Cody Livingston, Cameron Giannini, Cody Carroll and Cord Cockrell. Robbins also can pitch if needed.
"We have some depth," Berry said. "I don't know at what level that depth is. We have a lot of guys who can go out and compete and give us a chance to win. Starters are a concern because we don't have any that return.
"Fisk saw action as a starter in the middle of the week. Everybody else is new to that role. Middle relief is going to be very, very important to us. Will those guys be three-out guys or will they be six-out guys?
"We do have some depth, and we do have some good arms, but you've got to get between the white lines and make it work there."
Southern Miss was picked by Conference USA coaches to finish fourth -- behind Rice, Florida Atlantic and East Carolina -- in the league this season.
Southern Miss will host the Conference USA tournament May 21-25. The top eight teams in the regular-season C-USA standings will play in the tournament.