For the first time in 15 years, the Southern Miss baseball team is twice Conference USA champions in the same season.
The Golden Eagles won back-to-back games Sunday at MGM Park to add a C-USA tournament title to its regular season championship for just the second time in program history. The previous instance happened in 2003.
A day after suffering a deflating 7-4 loss to Charlotte, the Southern Miss baseball team topped the same team 6-0 Sunday morning behind an outstanding pitching performance by tournament MVP Mason Strickland and beat FAU 12-3 in the title game.
Strickland's complete-game shutout provided the spark USM was looking for in the 9 a.m. contest against Charlotte.
“Mason Strickland, what a momentum killer he was today for them,” USM head coach Scott Berry said. “(Charlotte) was riding a lot of momentum after last night's emotional win. We went home pretty depressed and frustrated, but we had to flush it and get ready to come back. The great thing about baseball is there's always the next day.”
USM outfielder Matt Wallner said his team managed to move past Saturday night's defeat fairly quickly.
"First, it was a little awkward with us and Charlotte coming off the bus at the same time (at the hotel)," Wallner said. "It was definitely disappointment after that. I think everyone got a little bit serious last night, got some rest and knew we had to come out today and get the job done, which we did."
USM (43-16) will find out at 11 a.m. Monday where it's headed in the NCAA tournament. The Eagles are likely a No. 2 seed in the tournament, with Oxford serving as their most likely destination.
Breakthrough at the plate
Southern Miss, which claimed its fourth C-USA tourney title, broke through at the plate Sunday after struggling to bring home runs in the first three games of the tournament. The Golden Eagles hit a total of five home runs Sunday — two against Charlotte and three against FAU.
Wallner, who hit two home runs total on Sunday, sparked the USM offense against FAU with a two-run home run to right field to give the Golden Eagles a 2-0 lead in the first inning. Wallner finished 4-of-5 with four RBIs in the win over FAU.
The four hits set a career high.
"I think I hit both change-ups out," Wallner said. "I saw pitches up and hit them and capitalized like a bunch of guys on our team did."
The two other players to go deep against FAU were catcher Bryant Bowen and left fielder Gabe Montenegro.
Gulfport's Daniel Keating also had multiple hits against FAU, going 3-of-5 with three RBIs. The senior designated hitter finished the tournament 8-of-19 with a homer and six RBIs.
"I was seeing it pretty well," Keating said "It was all about grinding out some at-bats and laying off some pitches and hitting what I could hit."
Sunday's victory was a satisfying one for Keating after dropping the title game to Rice at MGM Park a year ago.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team and how everybody has competed," Keating said. "I think the sky is the limit and there isn't a ceiling for us. As long as we keep competing like we are capable of, we can go all the way."
Senior reliever Keller Bradford (3-1) was the winning pitcher against FAU, giving up three runs on four hits in 4 2/3 innings. He struck out two and walked none.
Starting pitcher Adam Jackson threw well but left after a visit to the mound from the USM trainer in the third. He threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings.
The Golden Eagles have Strickland and the rest of the pitching staff to thank for earning a spot in Sunday's championship contest. The junior right-hander tossed the game of his career with a complete-game shutout to eliminate Charlotte, a team that beat USM on a three-run walk-off homer by Tommy Block Saturday night.
Strickland's longest outing of the season entering the game was 5.1 innings against Ole Miss in a relief effort. He lasted an impressive nine innings Sunday. He gave up three hits, walked one and struck out four.
“The goal was five innings, go out and compete and hand it off to the bullpen,” Strickland said. “I guess it worked out real good.”
Sunday marked the third time that Strickland (2-1) has thrown nine innings in a game, doing it at Jones County Junior College and at South Jones High School.
A Southern Miss baseball team known for a lineup loaded with sluggers like Wallner and Luke Reynolds showed it can pitch a little this week in the Conference USA tournament. USM's five starting pitchers combined to allowed four earned runs and three walks in 34 1/3 innings, with Strickland and Nick Sandlin both throwing complete-game shutouts.
The five starters had an ERA of 1.05 during the tournament.
“There was a lot of talk coming in that the pitching staff might not be good enough, and we wanted to prove that we were,” Strickland said.