HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) _ Youth is about to have its day with the University of Southern Mississippi baseball program.
In Year One PMW (Post Matt Wallner), 22 of the Golden Eagles on USM’s 35-man fall roster will play as sophomores, redshirt freshmen or freshmen.
If the Golden Eagles’ scrimmage with William Carey University at Pete Taylor Park earlier this fall was an indication, as many as six underclassmen could be in the starting batting lineup.
And that’s more than OK with USM coach Scott Berry, who will be heading into his 11th season at the helm come the spring of 2020.
“I’m very pleased with this club,” Berry said. “I don’t know how good we’re going to be, but I’ve told several people, this is the hardest-working team that I’ve been a part of in my years here at Southern Miss.
“They come in, and at the end of the day, they’ve put their work in. There’s no secret to success, it starts with hard work.”
Sophomores Danny Lynch and Will McGillis return as starting infielders. In game one of the quasi-doubleheader with the Crusaders, a slimmer Lynch remained at third base, with McGillis moving from shortstop to first base to fill the loss of senior Hunter Slater.
Freshman Dustin Dickerson, a signee from West Jones High School, stepped in at shortstop, joining another new face, catcher Brian Davis, a first-year transfer from Gordon State College in Barnesville, Ga.
“(Dickerson), he’s got a high baseball IQ and been around it a high level,” Berry said. “He just knows how to play the game.”
Sophomore Charlie Fischer has earned first dibs at designated hitter. Fischer technically returns, though he appeared in only nine games in 2018, starting one.
More young players could be found in the outfield. Red-shirt freshman Fisher Norris of Seminary High School patrolling Wallner’s main haunt in right field and returning sophomore Hunter LeBlanc in center.
Two graybeards remained as stalwart holdovers in the starting lineup, including senior second baseman Matthew Guidry, who hit a two-run home run, double and single against the Crusaders, and junior leadoff man/ left fielder Gabe Montenegro.
“I really liked some of the things I saw in that first game with that lineup that we broke out,” Berry said. “McGillis played good at first base, and he’s hit the ball well all fall.
“Guidry, he can really hit, and he continues to work on his defending. Danny Lynch continues to get better, and then Gabe there sets the tone at the top.
Berry also spoke highly of Norris.
“Fisher’s going to be fine,” Berry said. “He’s a kid who red-shirted and had to learn a lot last year by sitting and watching, using his eyes and his ears, but it looks like it’s paid off for him.”
In a second, five-inning game with Carey, McGillis played shortstop, Fischer shifted to left field, with Montenegro sliding to center field. Norris remained in right.
Red-shirt freshman transfer Andrew Stanley spelled Davis behind the plate, Pearl River Community College sophomore transfer Austen Izzio took over at first and freshman Reed Trimble of Northwest Rankin High School replaced Guidry at second base.
The youth movement apparently will spill over to the pitching mound as well.
In the first game, a trio of sophomores _ Gabe Shephard, Aubrey Gillentine and Drew Boyd _ and a freshman, Blake Wehunt, combined to throw 4 1/3 of the eight innings pitched. Also chipping in were newcomers Tyler Lantz, a Meridian Community College transfer, and Tyler Spring, a Mississippi State University graduate student transfer.
In game two, five freshmen pitched an inning apiece: Chandler Best; Ben Ethridge; Matt Adams; Isaiah Rhodes; and Dickerson. The quintet combined for no runs on two hits, while walking one and striking out six.
“We’re trying to figure out who we are as a team, and when I say that, it’s the three areas, the pitching, the defense, and the offense, and what combinations we can use that’s going to best help us be the best we can be and the most successful,” Berry said. “We gave up one hits in 14 innings and didn’t commit an error, so that was a pretty good day, a good clean baseball game on our part.”
The Golden Eagles wrapped up fall ball this past weekend, splitting a “scrimmage” doubleheader at the University of Alabama. The Crimson Tide won the first game 10-1, with USM taking the nightcap 5-4.
When the new faces return this spring, they will be greeted by a new field, as Taylor Park’s natural setting of dirt and grass will give way to an artificial surface.
Work began Monday on the renovation, and the $1.2 million to $1.3 million project is expected to be finished in time for spring practice.
“I think it’s going to be a gamechanger for us and allow us to do so much with our program,” Berry said. “It’s going to mean so much, on the field, in the development of our guys, but from a recruiting standpoint as well.”