HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - With a week to go, the University of Southern Mississippi has proved itself the best baseball team in Conference USA this spring.
But the Golden Eagles insist they are not done yet.
Behind Taylor Braley's seven shutout innings and Tracy Hadley's three hits that drove home three runs, No. 19 Southern Miss (40-12, 22-5 C-USA) clinched the conference title outright with an 8-0 victory and series sweep of the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
"That was the first step to our goals, to win the outright season title, and we got that done," said senior first baseman Dylan Burdeaux, who was still emotional after receiving a standing ovation from the 3,066 at Taylor Park after being taken out with two outs in the top of the ninth inning. "Now, we move forward.
"But even though we have the conference title wrapped up, there's more going forward. That, and you just want to stay hot toward the end of the year and keep playing good baseball. You can't let up now. You just want to carry that hot streak into the postseason."
USM has four games remaining in the regular season, facing Southeastern Louisiana University at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday at MGM Park in Biloxi before heading west for the final C-USA series Thursday through Saturday against the University of Texas-San Antonio.
The Golden Eagles, who extended their winning streak to a season-long 10 games, reached the 40-win plateau during the regular season for just the third time in program history, tying the 2004 team's 40 wins and trailing the 2003 team's 41 by a game. The 22 conference wins are the second-most USM has won, trailing only the 2003 team's 23 league wins.
In 2003, Southern Miss not only won the program's only other outright regular-season crown, but also the C-USA tournament title and became the only Golden Eagle team to host a NCAA Regional.
But while this season's Golden Eagles are looking forward, they aren't peering too far ahead.
"Just because we won the championship, doesn't mean we're going to finish the regular season just lackadaisical," Braley said. "We're going to come out and play to win, just like we do every, single day and have fun with it.
"We want to finish strong, playing like we have the whole time."
The Golden Eagles wrapped up their fifth C-USA series sweep in workman-like fashion Sunday.
Braley (5-2) scattered four hits over seven innings, striking out seven and walking one. The walk, issued to Zack Davis to lead off the eighth inning, was the only base-on-balls allowed by Golden Eagle pitching over the weekend.
Southern Miss took a 2-0 lead in the third, scoring on a throwing error and Hadley's RBI-single.
The Golden Eagles added a run in the fifth inning on Hadley's two-out single, then took a 4-0 lead on a two-out double by Matt Guidry.
Southern Miss wrapped up the scoring with a four-run eighth inning. Hunter Slater drove in the first run with a triple over the center fielder's head, two more scored on a fielding error by UAB shortstop Antonio Ralat and Hadley capped the rally with a run-scoring double.
"All we want is rings, now," Hadley said.
UAB (23-29, 8-19), which was eliminated this weekend from the eight-team C-USA tournament, managed only five hits Sunday and only one baserunner reached third base. Starting UAB pitcher Austin Thomas (2-2) allowed three runs on four hits over 4 1/3 innings to take the loss.
After Nick Sandlin recorded the final out on a grounder to second base, the Golden Eagles gathered near the pitcher's mound for a somewhat muted celebration before gathering in shallow left field for the normal postgame, per usual.
"Couldn't be more proud of our club," USM coach Scott Berry said, "our players, our staff, everything that went in to get us where we are.