HATTIESBURG -- Baseball season is a week away for Southern Miss and the Golden Eagles are raring to go.
"I've never been part of a team where every single person works hard like this team," said shortstop Tracy Hadley of Pascagoula, who played at Pearl River Community College last season. "They want to do something extra. It's not just coming to practice. There's always someone up here early, whether it's throwing, fielding or hitting. They stay afterward. I've never been a part of a team that works hard like this."
Only time will tell if that pays off and the Eagles improve on last year's 36-18-1 record and second-place (tie) in Conference USA with a 19-10 mark.
"We have some of the same faces but in different roles," said Southern Miss coach Scott Berry, who is 208-137-1 in his seventh season at Southern Miss. "If experience and knowledge play anything into it, certainly we're going to rely heavily on those older guys."
Sounds good, but the pitching staff and defense up the middle lost a lot from last year.
Pitchers James McMahon, Cody Carroll and Ryan Milton all signed professional contracts and Christian Talley pitched well, too. Seniors Nick Johnson, Jake Winston, Luke Lowery, Cord Cockrell and Cody Livingston and sophomore Kirk McCarty all return with experience on the mound and will be joined by junior college transfers Hunter Stevens and Sam Walley. Also, freshmen Nick Sandlin and Stevie Powers may see action.
"Coach Fed (pitching coach Michael Federico) doesn't want us to walk people," Livingston said. "He doesn't worry as much about hits. Make them swing the bat, make them earn their way on."
Catcher Chuckie Robinson will be the catcher in place of the graduated Austin Roussell. Other key losses were shortstop Michael Sterling and center fielder Connor Barron.
Returning second baseman Nick Dawson and Hadley have been working at shortstop.
Designated hitter Dylan Burdeaux has also been working in center field, along with senior transfer Jake Sandlin, while Tim Lynch and Taylor Braley are mainstays at first base and third base, respectively, as is Chase Scott in left field.
"We've been hitting the ball very well," said outfielder Daniel Keating, a sophomore from Gulfport. "The excitement has already set in. The first day you've got to stay calm, play within yourself."
Berry said Keating has plenty of potential.
"He's hitting with more power but his biggest tool is his speed, so we've got to get him on base," Berry said. "He has the ability to be a great player."
Another Coast player, Michael Gilbert, is recovered from the head injury suffered in preseason of last year, but has injured a knee and is in rehabilitation.
"What an inspiration to watch him work," Berry said. "He's progressed really nicely. I look for Michael to certainly contribute for us this year."
Berry said the USM hitting currently is better than the pitching.
"We have swung the bat pretty well," he said. "Our extra-base hits are up (in scrimmages)."
Southern Miss gets a chance to see if that continues in real games, which begin at 4 p.m. Feb. 19, in the first of a three-game series at Pete Taylor Park against Eastern Illinois.
Last season, Berry's marching orders were to, "Start fast."
This year, he says the mantra is, "Start faster."
Early in the season, USM lost two of three games to Oakland (Mich.), a team that was winless coming into The Pete. That series may have kept the Golden Eagles out of the NCAA Tournament.
"Everybody is disappointed we didn't get that chance to be one of the 64," Berry said. "I think that's stayed with us. That's kind of the motivating thing right now."