Southern Miss

Southern Miss, Rice meet with 1st place in C-USA up for grabs


 Southern Miss senior first baseman Tim Lynch leads the team with a .384 batting average.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Southern Miss senior first baseman Tim Lynch leads the team with a .384 batting average. SUN HERALD

First place in Conference USA is on the line when the Southern Miss and Rice baseball teams meet this weekend in Hattiesburg.

USM and Rice are in a tie for first place with both teams featuring 12-3 marks against conference competition. Florida Atlantic (27-8, 11-4) sits one game back.

The series starts at 7 p.m. Friday at Pete Taylor Park with a game that will be televised by Fox Sports 2.

The Golden Eagles (27-11) have hit a lull recently, losing three of the last four games. USM lost its first conference series of the season at UAB last week and fell 12-0 at Tulane on Tuesday.

Senior ace Cord Cockrell (6-0, 3.02) will look to keep his record perfect when he takes the mound Friday night against Rice.

Rice will counter with junior right-hander Jon Duplantier, who is 4-3 with a 2.73 ERA in nine starts this season.

Rice has struggled at the plate this season with a team batting average of .253 and only 10 homers.

USM sophomore third baseman Taylor Braley had 10 homers by himself before he went down with a knee injury two weeks ago. The Eagles are batting .313 as a team with 44 homers this season.

Rice has the edge when it comes to pitching with a team ERA of 2.85. The Golden Eagles' ERA has seen a recent uptick and now sits at 4.46.

A series win over Rice is a must for the Eagles to stay in the hunt for a regular season championship and a successful weekend for USM should all but lock up an NCAA at-large bid.

The Eagles are still in the discussion for the right to host a NCAA regional with an RPI ranking of No. 22, but they likely can't afford a series loss to the Owls.

The road only gets tougher next week in conference play as USM travels to take on FAU in Boca Raton, Fla.

"This is kind of the gauntlet of the schedule," USM senior Michael Gilbert said in a press release. "We obviously knew that that was going to be a big stretch for us for winning the conference and for (Ratings Percentage Index) purposes.

"We didn't look ahead. We played the season out. But now, we're here, to that big stretch, and we definitely need to come up big in the next six, seven games. We're going up against the two best teams in (Conference USA) besides us (Rice and FAU), so we definitely do not want to disappoint."

Rice head coach Wayne Graham, who turned 80 earlier this month, notched his 1,100th win at Rice on April 6. He has been at the school a total of 25 years, leading the 2003 squad to the national title.