Southern Miss

C-USA Baseball Tournament is anyone's to win

 Michael Gilbert of Southern Miss gives Chuckie Robinson directions to slide during game against Rice, Saturday, Apr. 23, 2016.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Michael Gilbert of Southern Miss gives Chuckie Robinson directions to slide during game against Rice, Saturday, Apr. 23, 2016.

HATTIESBURG -- Southern Miss coach Scott Berry believes his team has a good shot at winning this week's Conference USA Baseball Tournament at Pete Taylor Park.

Seven other coaches believe the same thing about their teams.

And why not? The race for the regular-season title went down to the wire with four teams, including USM, in the running. Florida Atlantic won it, but only after a couple of the others lost to teams in the bottom half of the standings. That means that every team appears competitive.

On top of that, one only has to remember that in 2015, the No. 8 seeded team -- Florida International -- won the tournament championship.

So, anything can happen from Wednesday's opening round to Sunday's championship.

"There are more really solid teams than ever before," said Rice coach Wayne Graham, whose Owls have won six of the 10 Conference USA baseball championships. "Some of the teams that didn't finish in the top four are good. Louisiana Tech just swept us. Florida International just swept Southern Miss. So there's a lot of talent in the conference, no doubt."

Berry agrees.

"This has been a very, very strong league this year from top to bottom," Berry said. "Going into the last weekend was a testament to that when you saw four teams really jumbled right there with a chance to win the conference.

"We saw FIU as an 8 seed last year win the tournament and I don't look for this year to be any different. All teams here are very, very good quality teams."

Strong field

Rice (fourth seed) plays Louisiana Tech (5) in the first game of the tournament at 9 a.m. Wednesday. They played each other just last weekend, with Tech sweeping the series.

Top-seeded FAU will tangle with Charlotte (8) at 12:30 p.m. in the other bracket's opener Wednesday.

In Bracket Two, Southern Miss (3) will play Old Dominion (8) at 4 p.m. Wednesday. They did not play each other during the regular season.

Former NFL star quarterback Brett Favre will throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Southern Miss-Old Dominion game.

Wednesday's final game will match Marshall (2) vs. FIU (7) at 7:30 p.m.

The winners of the two brackets will square off at 1 p.m. Sunday for the Conference USA championship. That team automatically advances to the NCAA tournament.

The teams in the C-USA finals will have played four or five games. That leads to the key of any tournament.

"I think your pitching has to be stable, it has to be consistent," said Graham, an 80-year-old who played for the New York Mets and manager Casey Stengal in 1964. "That's where we're hurting a little bit, because we don't have but three starters. So we'd have to improvise if we get to the finals.

"Some of the teams have some alternatives that are pretty good fourth starters. I'm trying to think of who may be in that category. Well, maybe they're isn't."

By Sunday, we'll see.

Needing to bounce back

Southern Miss ended the regular season with a 36-18 overall record, 20-10 in Conference USA, but lost its last three games to finish third.

"This past weekend was a nightmare," Southern Miss first baseman Tim Lynch said. "We didn't do very well with timely hitting. Cashing in with runners on third base is real important and you need to clean it up defensively."

But Lynch thinks the Golden Eagles can bounce back.

"I think we can win it," he said. "We've just got to take it game by game. We've got to stay in the moment and not think too far ahead. You think too far ahead, you're in the losers' bracket and it's hard to come back."

Berry believes USM took steps to do well in the tournament after getting out of Miami.

"Practice went really well," Berry said after Tuesday's practice. "Players got their batteries recharged on Sunday and we had a good two days of practice, a lot of energy and I thought there was a lot of focus."

C-USA standouts

The All-Conference USA team was announced Tuesday, and five Southern Miss players were on the first team.

Lynch, a senior first baseman, senior center fielder Jake Sandlin, junior right fielder Dylan Burdeaux, junior catcher Chuckie Robinson and sophomore pitcher Kirk McCarty all made the first team.

Senior pitcher Cord Cockrell made the second team. USM had a conference best six players on the first two teams.

Outfielder Hunter Slater and relief pitcher Nick Sandlin were named to the C-USA All-Freshman Team.

McCarty knows the importance of pitching in a long tournament.

"Everyone on our staff right now, and some guys who haven't contributed in a couple of weeks, has a chance to get out there and have some game action," said McCarty, who also made the Conference USA All-Academic Team with a 4.0 grade point average. "They're going to be called on. They're here for a reason and they know that. I think everybody is excited to accept that challenge and to run with it, get hot for a regional and then a super (regional) and then Omaha.

"We're excited, we're looking forward to the challenge."

On the mound

Southern Miss will turn to Cord Cockrell (7-1, 3.39 ERA) to start against ODU. Cockrell will make his second start after being sidelined with a shoulder injury. Against FIU last Thursday, Cockrell pitched three scoreless innings, striking out three against two hits.

ODU will turn to Victor Diaz. The senior right-hander is 6-3 with a 3.06 ERA. In 67 2/3 innings, Diaz has 32 strikeouts and 15 walks.