Southern Miss

A long road to recovery brings this Southern Miss pitcher back home to Fayetteville

Southern Miss redshirt sophomore Walker Powell has recovered from two Tommy John surgeries. This weekend, he will return to his hometown in the Fayetteville Regional.
Southern Miss redshirt sophomore Walker Powell has recovered from two Tommy John surgeries. This weekend, he will return to his hometown in the Fayetteville Regional. Special to the Sun Herald

While the Southern Miss baseball team hasn't played a game at Arkansas since 1994, Golden Eagle right-hander Walker Powell will be walking into very familiar territory this weekend in the Fayetteville Regional.

The 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore is a product of Fayetteville High School and was a member of a team that twice played for high school state championships at the Razorbacks' Baum Stadium. FHS won the state title during Powell's sophomore year in 2013 and finished as the state runner-up the next season.

Whether Powell takes the mound this weekend may depend on how USM fares in its first two games. Junior right-hander Nick Sandlin will be the starter in Friday's 7 p.m. game against Dallas Baptist, and junior left-hander Stevie Powers is usually the second man in the rotation.

If he does take the mound, he will see old friends in the Arkansas lineup. Redshirt senior second baseman Carson Shaddy and junior catcher Grant Koch played baseball at Fayetteville High School alongside Powell.

Powell is 7-2 with a 3.53 ERA in 15 starts this season — the only one of USM's primary starting pitchers who hasn't missed a start this season due to injury.

That run of durability for Powell is a promising turnaround for a career that could have easily been sidetracked after his freshman year at USM.

In an age where Tommy John surgery has become prevalent among up-and-coming pitchers, Powell stands out as a poster boy.

Recovering from one operation is hard enough for any young pitcher to endure, but Powell is among a growing group of pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery twice.

Tommy John surgery requires the UCL, a ligament on the inner side of the elbow, to be replaced by a tendon from your own body, or from a donor, and attaching it to act as the new UCL.

Powell injured his right elbow during his junior year of high school and again at the end of his freshman year at USM in 2016.

“It's tough, not going to lie to you,” Powell said. “It's been a long process. It's a really, really long road to recovery. I think it motivates me a little bit going through it a second time. Having a little bit of success during my freshman year kind of motivated me to come back even stronger.”

Powell was in the process of finishing off a strong freshman campaign when he left a start early against Marshall during the 2016 Conference USA tournament in Hattiesburg.

Powell found out he would have to undergo a second Tommy John surgery.

Once he began the rehab process, he noticed something different after having the second surgery.

“From the get-go, I could tell it was stronger,” he said. “Sometimes you get unlucky with the first time. Sometimes the graft they put in there doesn't hold up. It has nothing to do with the person or the rehab or whatever. Sometimes, it's just the human body. Sometimes it just rips. From the get-go, I could tell it was stronger. I felt better throwing the ball. It was just all around better the second time.”

Powell, who is 7-2 with a 3.53 ERA in 79 innings, is part of a USM pitching rotation that's one of the nation's best at avoiding walks. Sandlin, Powers and Powell have combined to walk just 39 batters in 245 2/3 innings.

USM (43-16) ranks second in the nation in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 3.53.

For Powell, this season has been about keeping batters frustrated with his cut fastball.

“It just naturally cuts,” he said. “I'll throw a cutter and I don't even try to. It's just how I release the ball. I can't throw a straight fastball, I guess.”

All-American selections

Southern Miss had two players pick up First-Team All-American selections on Thursday from Collegiate Baseball – junior right-hander Nick Sandlin and junior third baseman Luke Reynolds.

Sandlin is 9-0 this season with a nation-leading 1.13 ERA in 14 starts. He has 134 strikeouts and 20 walks in 100 innings.

Reynolds, a Mississippi State transfer, is hitting .400 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs. He leads the nation in on-base percentage at .562.