Patrick Magee

Reason for optimism as Southern Miss baseball gets ready to warm up

Gulfport native Daniel Keating gets a fist bump from Southern Miss coach Scott Berry after Keating hit a home run against Old Dominion at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg on May 25, 2016.
Gulfport native Daniel Keating gets a fist bump from Southern Miss coach Scott Berry after Keating hit a home run against Old Dominion at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg on May 25, 2016. ttisbell@sunherald.com File

With practice set to start in the next week, Southern Miss baseball coach Scott Berry has plenty to look forward to and some questions to answer before the season begins on Feb. 17.

The Golden Eagles are coming off a 41-20 campaign that included a Conference USA tournament championship and the program’s first postseason bid since 2011.

USM loses key pieces to its lineup to graduation like first baseman Tim Lynch, center fielder Jake Sandlin, shortstop Nick Dawson and catcher Chuckie Robinson. Four pitchers who made big contributions in the weekend starter role are also gone – Cord Cockrell, Nick Johnson, Jake Winston and Walker Powell, who is out this season due to Tommy John surgery.

Even though his team lost 13 seniors, Berry feels good about where his team stands after a productive fall session of practice.

“I think there’s certainly bright spots with the guys who have joined us,” Berry said. “We’ve got some new guys that looked good and you’ve seen returners pick up where they left off from last year. Position player-wise, we have more depth than we’ve ever had.”

The Southern Miss baseball team should be as good as any team in C-USA on the corners of the infield. Junior Taylor Braley, who had 10 homers and 31 RBIs in 27 games last season before his season ended with an injury, will be back at third base and senior Dylan Burdeaux will shift from right field to first base. Burdeaux batted .335 with 11 homers and 41 RBIs last season.

Up the middle

There will be more players battling for time at the middle-infield positions with LeeMarcus Boyd, a Northwest Mississippi Community College transfer and former Pascagoula standout Tracy Hadley seeing time at shortstop. Hadley could also be in a platoon situation at second base along with sophomore Storme Cooper, who proved a slick fielder and clutch hitter as a freshman a year ago.

Hadley, who could also see time in the outfield, has a chance to be the utility man for the Golden Eagles this year.

“He’s serviceable at multiple positions,” Berry said. “His biggest thing is he’s got to stay healthy. It’s hard to be on the field when you’re not healthy. He’s a senior that can play multiple positions. If he accepts that role, he’s going to be a big part of the team.”

Hunter Slater, who batted .314 with 26 RBIs last season, enters the spring as the likely left fielder while Jones County Junior College transfer Mason Irby has a good shot at being the right fielder.

Jake Sandlin will be tough to replace in center field, but freshman Matt Wallner is in good shape to fill his shoes following an outstanding fall. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-hander, who bats from the left side, landed at USM after the University of North Dakota, the program he initially signed with, dropped baseball in 2016.

Wallner chose USM over Minnesota and Kentucky and that’s proven to be a major boost to the Golden Eagles’ chances in 2017. He provides pop in the batting order, a strong glove in center and the potential to contribute as a pitcher.

“He’s a great, great kid. He’s also a great player,” Berry said. “He has a tremendous future for us and in baseball.”

Keating’s role

Junior Daniel Keating and Hadley could also see time in center this season. Keating, a Gulfport native, emerged as one of the team’s best bats late last year, finishing with a .303 average, five homers and 29 RBIs. As a designated hitter, he was named the C-USA tournament MVP.

Berry believes Keating is significantly improved as an outfielder.

Junior left-hander Kirk McCarty, who went 8-1 with a 3.15 ERA last year, will return to his weekend starter role. Berry pointed to junior right-hander Hayden Roberts, freshman right-hander Cody Carroll, junior right-hander Colt Smith and junior right-hander Calder Mikell as other options on the weekend.

“Once we start up intrasquads, it’ll be a little more evident who has made that adjustment to our level the next few weeks,” Berry said.

Nick Sandlin, a sophomore right-hander, is back as the team’s closer after picking up 12 saves last season.

For the first time since 2013, USM won’t be hosting the C-USA tournament in Hattiesburg. The Golden Eagles will instead make the 75-mile trek to the tournament’s new home, MGM Park in Biloxi, as long as they finish in the top eight in league play.

Dugout Club Banquet: Former major league pitcher Ben McDonald will serve as the keynote speaker at the 14th annual Southern Miss Dugout Club Banquet in the Thad Cochran Center in Hattiesburg at 6 p.m. on Feb. 11.

The event is open to all fans and tickets are $25. It will include a dinner, silent auction and a chance to meet the 2017 baseball team.

To make a reservation, call (601) 266-6542 or email bryan.vollmuth@eagles.usm.edu.

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