Different league, same result. Scott Berry’s Southern Miss Golden Eagles have won another championship.
Southern Miss defeated the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns 6-2 Sunday at Montgomery Sunday in the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in the Eagles’ inaugural season in the league. Southern Miss, ranked No. 16 nationally, will enter the NCAA Tournament later this week with a 41-17 record.
The Golden Eagles hope to host an NCAA Regional and will learn their tournament destination on Monday. Regardless of where they head, they will go as one of the hottest teams in college baseball. Sunday’s victory was their 19th in the past 21 games.
“We earned every bit of that win today,” an emotional Berry said amid the championship celebration. “I just couldn’t be more proud of the way our guys competed and did what it takes in all phases of the game.”
There were many USM heroes Sunday, but none stood taller, literally and figuratively, than 6-foot, 7-inch left-hander Justin Storm. The hero of last year’s NCAA Regional championship against LSU, Storm replicated the feat against another Louisiana team. He pitched the final 5.1 innings, shutting out the Cajuns while allowing only three hits and striking out eight. Afterward, the former Madison Central basketball center paraded around field at Riverwalk Stadium with the championship trophy high above his head, while his teammates circled the field shaking hands with Eagle fans who made the “neutral site” championship much like a home game at Pete Taylor Park.
All American pitcher Tanner Hall was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after pitching a complete game victory in the Eagles’ opener against James Madison. Hall was warming up in the bullpen during the eighth and ninth innings, but Storm was able to finish it out.
“Storm was just electric,” Hall said. “He shut them down, just like I knew he would.”
Asked what the championship meant to him, Hall said, “I mean it’s everything, but it’s mostly about Coach Berry to me. This being his last conference tournament, it just means more.”
Berry, 60, announced his retirement — effective season’s end — 12 days ago. Christian Ostrander, the associate head coach and pitching coach, will take his place.
Shortstop Dustin Dickerson, third baseman Danny Lynch, first baseman Christopher Sargent and Hall all made the All-Tournament team. Dickerson and Lynch both homered Sunday and Sargent also contributed two hits.
Designated hitter Slade Wilks provided more heroics, launching a towering, two-run home run — his 20th — in the seventh inning, increasing a tenuous one-run lead to 5-2. The ball seemed to stay in the air forever before coming down just over the reach of leaping Louisiana right fielder Heath Hood.
The Cajuns probably would prefer to never see Lynch again. Lynch, a senior who will become a Southern Miss grad assistant next season, launched two grand slams just one week earlier to give the Golden Eagles an 11-9 victory and a 2-1 series victory over Louisiana.
Said Berry, “Sometimes, there’s somebody that has your number and Danny Lynch certainly has Lafayette’s.”
Despite the loss, the 40-22 Cajuns probably played their way in to the NCAA Tournament by defeating seventh ranked Coastal Carolina twice on Saturday to reach the league finals. The Sun Belt presumably will place four teams in the 64-team field: USM, Coastal, Louisiana and Troy.
It is difficult to fathom that on April 22, Southern Miss fell to 22-15 after a 20-7 drubbing administered by Coastal Carolina at Conway, S.C. The Eagles came back to defeat Coastal the next day to begin the hot steak they continued Sunday. From 22-15 to 41-17 is no easy feat and similar to what Ole Miss did a year ago when it went from 22-17 to a national championship.
Under Berry, Southern Miss won five Conference USA regular season titles and four CUSA Tournament championships. Berry’s Eagles also have accomplished seven consecutive 40-victory seasons, the most of any NCAA Division I program.
Southern Miss athletic director Jeremy McClain was beaming afterward.
“Our guys really wanted this for Coach Berry, and I’m really, really proud the fight they showed,” McClain said. “Scott is the epitome of what we want to be at Southern Miss: character, class, tough, doing everything the right way. He may be retiring, but his fingerprints will be all over this program for a long, long time.”
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