Scott Berry's path from his hometown of Neosho, Missouri, to Hattiesburg was a winding one, but it seemed fate brought him to Southern Miss.
The USM baseball coach spoke at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum as part of the “Our Love Affair with Baseball” series Friday afternoon, providing insight on his nearly three decades of coaching and what to look for from his program in 2017.
Berry recalled one early trip to Hattiesburg to take on USM when he was a young volunteer assistant at Southwest Missouri State. He talked about how he was amazed at how tall the pine trees were in the area. He also remembered thinking about how much he'd enjoyed the short series at USM despite the fact that construction was still ongoing at Pete Taylor Park.
“If I ever get the opportunity to coach at Southern Miss man, I'm doing it,” Berry told himself then. “I fell in love with it.”
Move to Mississippi
Not long after the ride back to Springfield, Missouri, Berry got a tip that Meridian Community College head coach Corky Palmer was in need of a new assistant. The two met, hit it off and Berry was hired at MCC in 1991.
Berry became head coach at MCC after Palmer left to take over at his alma mater, USM, in 1997.
After the 2000 baseball season, Palmer again called Berry asking if he would join his staff at USM, promising that he would match his pay at MCC, where Berry compiled a record of 186-57 in four seasons.
“I said, 'Well, I'll think about it,'” Berry said. “Finally, he sealed the deal with this one, 'Daggum it buddy, how about if you get all the tobacco you want free?' At that time, it was about $3.50 a pouch and it had gone up. I didn't tell my wife that sealed the deal because she had been on me forever to quit chewing tobacco.
“I haven't had a chew since 2007 and I'm proud of that.”
Berry played catcher at Crowder College in Neosho for two seasons and was set to play at Nicholls State, but a back injury ended his playing career and sent him into coaching.
Berry took over as the USM head coach after Corky Palmer retired following the 2009 season, which included the program's only trip to the College World Series.
In Berry's seven years as head coach at USM, the Golden Eagles are 249-193-1 with three trips to the postseason. Berry's teams have never finished lower than third in the conference and have twice won the Conference USA Tournament, including the 2016 event in Hattiesburg.
A look ahead
In 2017, Berry's USM squad will look to defend its C-USA Tournament championship when the event moves to MGM Park in Biloxi.
“We're excited about having it on the Coast,” Berry said. “We've just got to make it. There are no assurances. Staying in Mississippi is key for us.”
Berry has key contributors returning this year, but will have to replace important players like first baseman Tim Lynch, catcher Chuckie Robinson, shortstop Nick Dawson, center fielder Jake Sandlin and pitching ace Cord Cockrell.
Berry will also be without sophomore right-hander Walker Powell, who had a breakout season as a freshman with a 4-3 record and 3.46 ERA in 18 appearances this past season. Powell underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow for the second time in less than three years and will miss the 2017 campaign.
Berry pointed to junior left-hander Kirk McCarty as his likely Friday night ace in 2017. McCarty was USM's top starter for much of the 2016 season, finishing with an 8-1 record and 3.15 ERA in 17 appearances.
USM returns plenty of pop in the order in senior Dylan Burdeaux and junior Taylor Braley, who hit 10 homers and knocked in 31 despite missing the final half of the season with a knee injury. Burdeaux, who will likely move from right field to first base, batted .335 with 11 homers and 41 RBIs last season.
Berry can also rely on sophomore reliever Nick Sandlin, who led the team with 12 saves and a 2.38 ERA in 26 appearances a year ago.
Gulfport product Daniel Keating, who was named the C-USA Tournament MVP, batted .303 with five homers and 29 RBIs and will likely be in the middle of the batting order. However, he suffered a broken foot in the summer and will have to work his way back from that.
“His game has continued to get better. I think this is his big year, his third year. I compare him a lot to Chuckie Robinson,” Berry said. “His first two years were learning years in the process. This junior year is when we really need him to step forward and take that jump.”
Pascagoula's Tracy Hadley, who became USM's starting third baseman late in the 2016 season, will be in a four-way competition to start at shortstop along with junior college transfers Jaylon Keys, LeeMarcus Boyd and Casey Maack.