Conference USA is a tough baseball conference, but Southern Miss made it look relatively easy in 2017.
With the C-USA tournament beginning Wednesday at MGM Park in Biloxi, we'll find out if the Golden Eagles are up for the next challenge.
USM (44-12) rolls into Wednesday's 4 p.m. C-USA tournament opener against Texas-San Antonio as the No. 1 seed and with a No. 11 national ranking from D1Baseball.com.
“It's been awesome,” USM freshman Matt Wallner said of the record-setting season. “We're getting hot at the right time. I think we're going to keep it going. It’s hard not to have fun when you’re scoring 30 runs in a doubleheader. It’s just truly amazing. It’s been the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball.”
On Tuesday, the Golden Eagles were rewarded for one of the best regular seasons in conference and program history. USM set a program mark for most wins in the regular season and tied the C-USA record for most conference victory.
USM senior first baseman Dylan Burdeaux was named the C-USA player of the Year, eighth-year head coach Scott Berry was named the Keith LeClair Coach of the Year and standout outfielder/pitcher Wallner was named the conference's Freshman of the Year.
USM hitting coach Chad Caillet was named the Assistant Coach of the Year and eight USM players total were honored on Tuesday, the most for any team.
“Anytime you're coach of the year, it's really a team of the of the year award,” Berry said Tuesday.
Burdeaux, who ranks in the Southern Miss all-time top 10 in seven different categories, will play in his fourth and final conference tournament this week
“He's one of the best all-around players to ever play at Southern Miss,” Berry said. “From his freshman to senior seasons, he has evolved into a complete player.”
There was a great deal of preseason hype surrounding Wallner, but he has exceeded expectations with a .340 batting average, 17 homers and 55 RBIs.
After receiving an invite to the Team USA camp a week ago, even Wallner admits to being surprised at how well his season has gone.
“I'm definitely very blessed to do what I've been able to do,” he said. “I wouldn't say I expected to be Freshman of the Year. That was never a realistic goal of mine. I can't thank my teammates and coaches enough.”
Junior outfielder Daniel Keating is one of three Coast natives who should play significant roles for USM this week, joining senior infielder Tracy Hadley (Pascagoula) and freshman right-hander Alex Nelms (Gulfport).
Keating, who was the C-USA tournament MVP a year ago, is anxious to play tournament games in front of family.
“Oh man, I've been looking forward to it ever since they announced it,” Keating said.
Keating didn't have a good estimate on how many friends and family he'll have at MGM Park this week.
“There's no telling, honestly,” he said. “There will be a good bit of them from both sides of the family, mom and dad.”
Keating is one more powerful bat in a potent USM lineup that ranks fifth in the nation in total homers – 78. Keating is batting .268 with 10 homers and 27 RBIs. He's also stolen 11 bases.
Southern Miss is in good shape to host a regional next week at the moment. The team could also play its way into the national seed discussion with a tournament title.
Berry believes his team is deserving of a chance to play baseball in Hattiesburg in the first round of the postseason.
“I do, but those are things that are out of my control,” he said. “Given what we've done and the body of our resume, I think we've earned it.”
With UTSA holding off on announcing a starting pitcher for Wednesday's game, Berry was also noncommittal on announcing a starter.
A pair of junior right-handers, Colt Smith and Taylor Braley, appear to be the top candidates to pitch for the Golden Eagles.
Berry said that Wallner, who has been hindered on the mound by a hip injury, will be available to pitch in Biloxi this week.
Wallner admits that he's still not 100 percent while pitching.
“It's something I can definitely do if needed,” he said. “If they need me, I'm there, especially for the conference tournament and the playoffs.”
9 a.m. — No. 6 Rice vs. No. 3 FAU
12:30 p.m. — No. 7 FIU vs. No. 2 ODU
4 p.m. — No. 8 UTSA vs. No. 1 Southern Miss
7:30 p.m. — No. 4 Charlotte vs. No. 5 Louisiana Tech
Tickets: MGM Park box office, TicketFly.com or (877) 344-2174.