HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi baseball team will take a tough, first step into the so-called second season, when it opens Conference USA play on the road against the league's most winning ballclub.
The Golden Eagles (13-4) open a three-game series at 6 p.m. Friday against Louisiana Tech University (15-2) in Ruston, Louisiana.
"Someone asked me recently, 'What is it about conference that all of a sudden changes how teams play?'" USM coach Scott Berry said. "I just think that there's an enthusiasm when you get started because probably one of the goals that you've set for a team is to win conference. It starts a new season and a different focus."
Southern Miss has won four consecutive games and six of its last seven, while the Bulldogs have won of their last eight.
"I feel good going into it, but, obviously, it's going to be a heck of a challenge over in Ruston, but I'd like to think they have a challenge, too, with us coming in there," Berry said.
He said the Golden Eagles likely would stick with the starting rotation that allowed just two runs last weekend against Xavier University. All told, the Golden Eagles' pitching staff shut out the Musketeers over the final 25 innings of the three-game series.
Left-hander Kirk McCarty (2-2, 3.33 ERA) is expected to take the mound Friday, with Louisiana Tech expected to counter with right-hander Kent Hasler (3-0, 1.88).
McCarty is expected to be followed by right-handers Hayden Roberts (1-1, 2.96) and J.C. Keys (1-1, 1.64). The pair went a combined 14 2/3 shutout innings in a Saturday doubleheader against Xavier.
Tech pitching possibles include right-hander Cameron Linck (2-0, 2.57) and right-hander Casey Sutton (3-0, 2.86).
Tech, coached by former USM assistant Lane Burroughs, is potent at the plate, hitting .300 as a team and averaging 9.1 runs per game. The Bulldogs rank second nationally with a run differential of plus-5.6 runs per game.
Leadoff man Jordan Washam is hitting .406 and tops the nation with 28 runs scored. Raphael Gladu ranks ninth nationally with 24 runs and is hitting .324. Chase Lunceford is hitting .300 with six home runs and 21 RBIs.
The Golden Eagles swing the bats as well, hitting .297 as a team, with 30 percent of their hits (53 of 176) going for extra bases.
Casey Maack, who has three home runs in his last three games and drove in four with three runs scored in 20-5 win Wednesday over Columbia University, said the Golden Eagles will stick with the approach they have used throughout the season.
"I don't think it changes much," Maack said. "Keep grinding. Stay working hard. It's going to be a tough series, but the way we've been playing, I think we have a good chance to go out there and take some wins. We just have to stay focused."
Saturday's game is set for a 2 p.m. start, with Sunday's game set for 1 p.m.
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