USM focused on C-USA tournament

USM focused on C-USA tournament
USM (9-9, 2-3), which saw a two-game winning streak snapped. (Photo source: USM)

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - University of Southern Mississippi baseball coach Scott Berry said what has happened in the past is just that: passed.

However, that does not mean that his Golden Eagles are unmindful that history has a way of repeating itself to those who ignore its lessons.

Last year, Berry and his Golden Eagles won a Conference USA regular-season championship, earning the top seed in the conference's eight-team, double elimination postseason tournament.

And USM promptly went out and lost its opening-round game to eighth-seeded University of Texas-San Antonio, a team the Golden Eagles had swept the final weekend of the regular season.

Wednesday at 4 p.m., 17th-ranked USM (39-15) will step onto the diamond at MGM Park at Biloxi as the league's regular-season champion and top seed for the 2018 Conference Baseball Tournament. The Golden Eagles will take on eighth-seeded University of Alabama-Birmingham (21-31), a team they swept in a three-game conference series the first weekend of May.

"Just the experience we had before, I think, is going to make a difference," USM sophomore outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner said. "We were the ones that lost to an eight seed just after beating them three days in a row, so, with the importance of that not happening again, there's a point of emphasis on this game on not taking UAB, or really taking anyone, lightly."

USM redshirt freshman outfielder Gabe Montenegro was not at the 2017 tourney, leaving immediately after the 2016-17 academic year to go play summer baseball.

But Montenegro said the Golden Eagles are focused on taking the tourney on a game-by-game basis.

"It's baseball, anything can happen," Montenegro said. "We'll just try to play our game. We don't play the opponent as much as we try stay with who we are.

"We're definitely feeling good. We're just trying to stay consistent and not really think about the past too much. We're just getting ready to try and win some more games."

USM will start junior left-hander Stevie Powers (4-1, 3.36 ERA), who sat out the last two weeks of the regular season with tightness in the forearm of his pitching arm. In fact, Powers forearm issue popped up at UAB on May 5, and he left the game after two innings, having allowed a run on three hits.

Junior Nick Sandlin, who was named C-USA Pitcher of the Year Tuesday, is slated to start Thursday.

Berry said the decision to start Powers against the Blazers had nothing to do with seeding.

The final regular-season series, a three-game trip at Marshall University, was played a day ahead of the usual Friday-through-Sunday weekend schedule, and Sandlin pitched the Thursday opener against the Thundering Herd.

If Sandlin were to start Wednesday's game, it would mean the Golden Eagles' ace would be operating on one day less recovery time for a second consecutive week.

"Stevie's fresh and if we threw Nick on Wednesday, that would be two straight weeks with one day less rest each week," Berry said.

USM will head into the tournament after capping the regular season with a first-ever sweep of the Herd in West Virginia. Prior to that, the Golden Eagles had dropped three of four games, their worst slump of the year, including the only back-to-back losses of the season.

"I remember Coach Berry challenged us after the UNO game, saying, 'Hey, the Marshall series is crucial,' and that it was going to be the biggest challenge of our season so far," USM junior third baseman Luke Reynolds said. "I think we accepted it, and provided our own energy because there wasn't much there. We had to come in as a unit and really grind out those wins.

"I think we learned from the (Louisiana) Tech and UNO (losses), and that (Marshall) is going to be a helpful series for us going forward."

Forward is the only direction that Berry said he wants his Golden Eagles' focus, though no farther than the next game on schedule.

"Our deal, our focus, is that we are playing for the present," Berry said. "Whatever's happened in the past, it's over. The conference championship, that's great, but that's over.

"It's time to move on to another thing, and that's the conference tournament, and that's what we've done and what we're going to do."

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