The Southern Miss baseball team begins Conference USA competition Friday at Marshall as one of the favorites to contend for a conference title.
The Golden Eagles are 14-4 with a record of 11-1 in weekend games headed into Friday's 1:30 p.m. series opener against the Thundering Herd. The two teams will play a doubleheader Friday due to inclement weather expected over the weekend.
USM has the highest RPI ranking in C-USA at No. 16 as one of four of the league's teams who are ranked in the RPI top 50, according to WarrenNolan.com - No. 24 Old Dominion, No. 48 Western Kentucky and No. 46 Rice.
USM coach Scott Berry likes how his team is working together headed into the conference slate.
"Eighteen games into it, I see a really good chemistry with our guys," Berry said. "They complement each other from top to bottom, from freshman to senior. They're all pulling for one another. That's what I seen. I've coached teams that don't give off that type of presence.
"The eight teams in Omaha, those are the teams that have the best chemistry of all. They've all accepted their roles and any roles asked of them. They're willing to do whatever is asked of them."
USM's pitching rotation has come into focus headed into conference play with senior right-hander Cord Cockrell settling in as the Friday night ace with a record of 3-0 and ERA of 1.73.
Jake Winston, a senior right-hander, has made every Saturday start and is 2-0 with a 4.63 ERA. Sophomore lefty Kirk McCarty has done well on Sundays with a 1-0 record and 3.80 ERA.
"I think it's shaped up pretty good," Berry said of the rotation. "That's definitely a plus for your program."
Much of the lineup that USM started the season with is still in place for the start of conference play.
The only real change has come in the middle of the infield where senior Nick Dawson has taken over at shortstop and freshman Storme Cooper has moved into Dawson's old spot at second base.
Pascagoula native Tracy Hadley started the season at shortstop and was playing well before injuries, including a hip flexor, have kept him off the field.
Dawson has improved his batting average to .355 after hitting just .222 last season.
"He's comfortable (at shortstop). He played it in high school," Berry said. "I feel good about him right now."
A pair of seniors, outfielder Jake Sandlin and first baseman Tim Lynch, have led the Golden Eagles at the plate.
Sandlin, a transfer from Div. II Georgia College, is batting .391 with a homer and 10 RBIs as the starting center fielder.
Lynch is batting .371 with four homers and 19 RBIs.
Berry has watched as Lynch as developed into a leader for the Golden Eagles.
"He's a leader in the locker room and on the field," Berry said. "I think you're seeing a senior who has been in the program for four years. I would not have said he was a leader as a freshman, but now he is. That's a sign of maturity and accountability."
Gulfport native Daniel Keating is batting .275 with a homer and seven RBIs in mostly a designated hitter role. He leads the team in stolen bases with four in six attempts.
Harrison Central product Michael Gilbert has played in nine games this season, including a start at third base in Tuesday's 9-2 win over Alabama in Hattiesburg.
USM will host Tulane at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at MGM Park in Biloxi before returning to conference play against UTSA in a three-game series in Hattiesburg starting on March 24.