The road to Biloxi begins Friday in Conference USA.
The C-USA baseball slate gets underway with Southern Miss-Louisiana Tech serving as the marquee series during the opening weekend of conference competition.
Of C-USA's 12 baseball-playing members, only eight will qualify for the C-USA Tournament in Biloxi on May 24-28 at MGM Park. This year will mark the first of at least three C-USA Tournaments to be played at the home of the Biloxi Shuckers.
If it was up to Louisiana Tech coach Lane Burroughs, the C-USA Tournament would be in Biloxi for the long run.
“I like the idea of the conference tournament being at place every year,” the former USM and Mississippi State assistant said. “I'm not a fan of it jumping around from school to school. It's good for your league and fans to know where you're going. I think it's great to have it down on the Coast.”
While there are a handful of favorites to breeze through and earn bids to Biloxi, there are no guarantees in what has proven to be a tough conference on the baseball diamond.
C-USA sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament a year ago — Southern Miss, Rice, Louisiana Tech and Florida Atlantic. Marshall narrowly missed out on a bid of its own.
There are a handful of teams who have stood out in C-USA early in the season with Louisiana Tech deserving of being considered the favorite to take home a regular season title. The Bulldogs, who feature former Ocean Springs and USM standout Travis Creel as an assistant on the staff, are 15-2 with a healthy list of impressive wins. La. Tech has a three-game sweep of Wichita State and mid-week wins over Mississippi State, Arkansas and Louisiana-Lafayette.
“We have an older club,” Burroughs said this week. “Offensively, we're very mature. If you look at our lineup, we run seven guys out there that have 700-800 at-bats in junior college and four-year ball.”
Jordon Washam (.406) and Brent Diaz (.388) lead a La. Tech team that is batting .300 as a team.
Three other C-USA teams appear in a good early position to make a run at the postseason — Southern Miss (13-4), Old Dominion (12-4) and Charlotte (11-6).
Rice (6-13) stumbled out of the gate against its usual tough non-conference slate, but the Owls can never be counted out in league play.
“Just like any other year, there's a lot of parity,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “It's going to be another really, really strong league.”
FAU (11-5) and FIU (11-7) will also have a major say in who wins the conference. USM has the benefit of having both of the Florida schools making a trip to Hattiesburg this season.
USM features three players from the Coast who are making significant contributions — junior center fielder/DH Daniel Keating (Gulfport), senior infielder Tracy Hadley (Pascagoula) and freshman right-handed pitcher Alex Nelms (Gulfport). Former Biloxi and USM slugger B.A. Vollmuth also serves as an assistant to Berry.
USM junior third baseman/pitcher Taylor Braley is batting .368 with four homers and 16 RBIs this season to lead his team at the plate.
USM, which took two out of three from Louisiana Tech in Hattiesburg last year, will travel to Ruston, La., for a 6 p.m. first pitch in Game 1 on Friday. The outcome of the series will have a big impact on the chase for a regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the C-USA Tournament.
Projecting the field
Patrick Magee’s projected participants for the C-USA Tournament in Biloxi:
1. Louisiana Tech
2. Southern Miss
3. Old Dominion