Southern Miss baseball fans will find out what all the preseason buzz was about in Friday’s 4 p.m. season opener.
The Golden Eagles host Northeastern in a three-game series at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg with junior right-hander Hayden Roberts serving as the starting pitcher in Friday’s season opener.
Left-hander Kirk McCarty will get the start at 1 p.m. on Saturday and freshman right-hander Cody Carroll will take the hill at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
USM is coming off a 41-20 season that included a Conference USA tournament title and the program’s first postseason bid since 2011.
Success breeds expectations and there’s good reason for high hopes in 2017.
Junior third baseman Taylor Braley and senior first baseman Dylan Burdeaux will lead a lineup that is expected to be productive from the leadoff spot all the way to the nine hole. Head coach Scott Berry also likely has more options off the bench than he’s had during his eight-year tenure as head coach.
While Burdeaux and Braley are proven pieces of the batting order, much of the talk entering the season surrounds a pair of projected starters - Freshman center fielder Matt Wallner and junior catcher Cole Donaldson, a transfer from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.
Wallner, who bats from the left side but throws right-handed, signed with USM in June after the program he initially signed with, the University of North Dakota, dropped its baseball program. He turned down offers from Kentucky and Minnesota and a 32-round draft selection by the Minnesota Twins to sign with the Golden Eagles.
Wallner, who hits with power, has drawn rave reviews from teammates.
“When he played in the first couple of (scrimmages), the first question that popped up in my head was, ‘Why is he here?’,” senior infielder Tracy Hadley said. “He understands the game, especially in the batter’s box to just be a freshman. He knows what’s coming and what he should look for. That’s impressive.”
Wallner and Gulfport native Daniel Keating have been sharing time in center field in practice.
Whoever is in center will have a tough act to follow after Jake Sandlin batted .353 with seven homers and 39 RBIs a year ago in his senior season.
Donaldson also has big shoes to fill at catcher after Chuckie Robinson earned All-Conference USA honors and signed with the Houston Astros following a 21st-round selection in the MLB Draft.
Berry sees Donaldson as being an impact player behind the plate.
“He’s very athletic,” Berry said. “I’m kind of old school and I kind of look at him as a Benito Santiago type. He has a very good arm.
“He’s hit with some power in the fall and in the spring. I didn’t look for him to do that, but he has shown that. With his speed, he’ll add to the double and extra-base side of it.”
One area to keep an eye on over the weekend will be in the middle of the infield. Lee Marcus Boyd and Pascagoula native Tracy Hadley have shared time at shortstop and Hadley should also factor in at second base where sophomore Storme Cooper is a returning starter.
“I think you’ve got three really candidates (on the middle infield),” Berry said. “We’d certainly like Tracy to stay healthy for us.”
Southern Miss schedule
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USM vs. Northeastern, 4 p.m.
USM vs. Northeastern, 1 p.m.
USM vs. Northeastern, 1 p.m.