HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi lost 15 players, including 13 seniors, from the baseball team that won the 2016 Conference USA Baseball Tournament championship and earned a spot in an NCAA Regional.
But USM coach Scott Berry said he has high expectations for the Golden Eagles this spring.
"We have a lot of talent, but what we had last year more than that was we had chemistry," Berry said. "We had talent last year, but we had the perfect seasoning to bring it together, and that was chemistry. I'm not sure about this group yet. We had it in the fall, but you really can't tell until the spring. The biggest thing with this group is how they accept their roles and are willing to play those roles."
The beginning to that answer begins this week.
The Golden Eagles reported Monday, and the first day of "skill workouts" will start Tuesday.
Players can drill two hours a week before spring practice officially begins Jan. 27.
USM opens the season on Feb. 17, hosting Northeastern University at 4 p.m. at Taylor Park.
Last season, the Golden Eagles (40-21) came out of the third seed to win the C-USA Tournament, claiming a 3-2 decision over Rice University in a title game that ended on a play at home plate.
The win sent USM into the postseason for the first time since 2011. The Golden Eagles went 1-2 at the Tallahassee Regional, topping the University of South Alabama in the regional opener before falling in consecutive games, first to host Florida State University and then in a rematch with the Jaguars.
It was the last game in a Golden Eagle uniform for such stalwart senior starters as Tim Lynch (.365, 89 hits, 10 home runs, 59 RBI); shortstop Nick Dawson (.328, 19 doubles), center fielder Jake Sandlin (.353, 83 hits, 57 runs, 17 doubles), infielder/outfielder Chase Scott (.240, seven home runs) and pitchers Cord Cockrell (7-2, 4.26 ERA), Jake Winston (7-2 4.68) and Nick Johnson (3-1, 4.19), Luke Lowery and Cody Livingston.
Junior catcher Chuckie Robinson (.288, seven home runs, 44 RBIs) also bid farewell, opting to turn pro after being drafted by the Houston Astros.
Backup junior catcher Claudio Rubio transferred back to a school near his home in Miami, Florida.
But USM returns a cadre of talent that is expected to supplemented by a nucleus of newcomers who stepped forward during fall practice.
"We return five guys with (more than) 100 at-bats and another just under 100 at-bats, but we have the most depth with position players since I've been here," Berry said. "We have a lot of depth on that side, a lot of options we can do, particularly in late-game changes or even mid-game options if we wanted to, and I don't feel we would lose much if we did that."
Senior Dylan Burdeaux, a first-team All-C-USA selection who hit .335 and led the team from .335 leading off the batting order, will move from right field to first base. Junior Taylor Braley, who went down with a season-ending knee injury 27 games into 2016, returns at third base after hitting .323 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIS in 96 at-bats.
Junior outfielder/designated hitter Daniel Keating (.303, 28 runs, 29 RBI), sophomore outfielder/designated hitter Hunter Slater (.314, 28 runs, 10 doubles, 28 RBI), sophomore infielder Storme Cooper (.235, 25 runs, 26 RBI) and senior infielder Tracy Hadley (.256) also will figure in the starting mix.
Berry said Hadley and Cooper are the top candidates at second base, with Hadley and junior LeeMarcus Boyd, a transfer from Northwest Mississippi Community College, the leaders at shortstop and sophomore Cole Donaldson, a transfer from Hutchinson Community College, expected to start behind the plate.
Keating and Slater, a 2016 C-USA All-Freshman selection, will be among the top four outfield candidates, joined by junior Mason Irby, a transfer from Jones County Junior College, and freshman Matt Wallner of Forest Lake, Minnesota.
The pitching staff will boast first team All-C-USA junior left-hander Kirk McCarty (8-1, 31.5 ERA) and junior right-hander Hayden Roberts (0-0, 3.95 ERA) as returning starters, with 2016 All-Freshman selection Nick Sandlin (3-3, 2.38 ERA, 12 saves) holding down the back end of ballgames.
With right-hander Walker Powell out for the season Tommy John surgery on his elbow, returning sophomore left-hander Stevie Powers, junior college right-hander Colt Smith, true freshman right-hander Cody Carroll and Wallner are expected to figure in the mix as potential starters.
Spot starter/reliever Austin Millet is expected to miss at least part of the spring after lesser elbow surgery, while right-hander Mason Walley will not return this season.
Berry said pitcher/outfielder Peyton Lee, a transfer from Pearl River Community College, decided not to return to USM for the spring semester.
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