HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - If you’ve a moment to spare, travel with us back to May 31, 2004 ...
On that Memorial Day, the University of Southern Mississippi baseball team and Golden Eagles head coach Corky Palmer officially learned its NCAA postseason play destination.
For the program and its fans, it would be foundational selection, as USM was slotted into college baseball’s playoffs for a second consecutive spring, a feat the program had managed just once before in 1990 and 1991.
These were not the days when an NCAA Regional simply was assumed, a taken-for-granted extension of the regular season, a presumed arrival wrapped in red-white-blue bunting on Memorial Day morning.
Not in Hattiesburg. Not just yet.
Consider: The Golden Eagles were just one year removed from one of the most important and prolific seasons in school history, as USM transformed just its fourth postseason appearance in program history into its first-ever as regional host
A year later, USM still fielded one of the best everyday lineups in program history despite losing the “Bash Brothers,” outfielders Jeff Cook and Clint King, as well designated hitter/Swiss Army Knife-utility player Griff Israel from the previous year.
Beau Griffin, Matt Shepherd, Jarrett Hoffpauir and Marc Maddox manned the infield, Brad Willcutt was behind the plate and Jason Lowery, Carlos Velasquez and Ryan Frith patrolled the outfield.
The team hit .316, with school records that still stand for hits (719), total bases (1,166) and home runs (90, tied by the 2017 club). The unit’s 456 RBIs still rank third in single-season annals and the 2004 team was the first and remains one of only four USM squads to score more than 500 runs in a season.
USM lost “Bullet” Bob McCrory and Stephen Castleman from the starting rotation, but saw freshman Patrick Ezell take a spot, joining returning starters Cliff Russum and Anthony DeWitt. Austin Tubb had the back end of the bullpen, with setup men Ray Antonelli and John Nicholas handing the ball off for the ninth inning.
USM had pocketed 40 wins during the 2004 regular season, and carried a Ratings Percentage Index of 27 into the double-elimination Conference USA Baseball Tournament at Cougar Field in Houston, Texas. Those two factors alone pretty much had reserved a spot for the Golden Eagles in the 64-team postseason.
Nonetheless, a poor performance at the tournament was not what the Golden Eagles needed, either.
USM ended the regular season by dropping a best-of-three series to East Carolina University in Hattiesburg. The Golden Eagles were shut out by a combined 20-0 in the two losses.
A two-and-out in Houston, giving USM four losses in five games, was not the kind of momentum the Golden Eagles wanted to carry into a regional.
So, come tournament week, we met a buddy from the Coast paper and drove over on Tuesday, taking rooms at a Days Inn.
We were up early the next day, heading to the park for USM’s first game, which was also the first game of the tournament.
Little did we know we were clambering aboard a roller coaster and in for one heckuva a week-long ride.
Third-seeded USM faced the sixth-seeded University of Memphis, and the Golden Eagles fell behind 3-0 in the top of the first inning.
USM tied the score in the third before Russum, who was making his first appearance since straining his arm at Tulane University in late March, gave up a solo homer in the fifth inning that gave the Tigers a 4-3 lead.
Memphis added six more runs over the final three innings against USM’s bullpen to claim an eventual 10-5 win.
That threw the Golden Eagles into the elimination bracket, and things did not appear promising when second-seeded Tulane dropped a 10-4 decision to the seventh-seeded University of Alabama-Birmingham in the opening round.
USM had been swept ugly by the Green Wave in New Orleans during the regular season, losing the first two games 34-6, allowing 17 runs in each.
Meanwhile, despite having to juggle its rotation because of food poisoning, Tulane trotted out J.R. Crowel, who had lost just one game all season.
We checked out of the Day’s Inn the next morning.
Thursday’s games also was the first contest of the day, and we figured if USM was eliminated, which seemed a decent bet, we’d be done with our stories by the end of lunch and could scoot back home before the sun set.
Instead, USM lit up the Green Wave like the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree.
After the Golden Eagles buried the Wave with a six-run, sixth inning, on the way to a 16-4 win in right innings, we called the Days Inn to see if we could get our rooms back.
DeWitt started, and USM handed him a 7-0 lead. After Tulane cut the lead to 7-4 in the fifth inning, Ezell picked up the win with four innings of solid relief
Frith hit two home runs and drove in four runs, Griffin had a triple and home run and drove in four more and Willcutt drove in three runs with a home run and double. All told, USM banged out 16 hits.
Friday’s elimination game saw the Golden Eagles pitted against Memphis after UAB had declawed the Tigers 7-6 in Thursday evening’s winner’s bracket game.
While the first elimination game didn’t start until 3 p.m., we figured USM had used its trio of regular starting pitchers, and that if the Golden Eagles lost, we could be home early Saturday morning, sleeping in our own beds.
So, we checked out again, with the provision to call by such-and-such if we needed our rooms back.
It turned out we did.
Oft-injured Mike Cashion pitched the game of his USM career, striking out eight in a three-hit, complete-game shutout as the Golden Eagles pummeled Memphis 13-0 in seven innings.
The Golden Eagles banged out 11 more hits, with Hoffpauir driving in four runs on three hits, including a double and home run. Velasquez hit a grand slam, and Griffin and Maddox each had two hits.
Memphis’ losing pitcher allowed three runs over four innings to take the loss, but went on to have pretty decent career in another sport.
His name: Stephen Gostkowski, who would help New England win three Super Bowls as the Patriots’ place-kicker.
With the win, USM would face UAB in the bracket semifinals, having to defeat the Blazers twice to reach Sunday’s championship game.
The first elimination game was the first game of the day, and with USM’s pitching on fumes, it was hard to see how the Golden Eagles could fare well against a team that still had pitching depth.
Yes, UAB was a seventh seed, but the Blazers were hot.
So, of course, we checked out again, figuring if they lost the opening game, we’re gone by the end of lunch and home before dark.
Then, too, we had become a little superstitious, and wanted to keep to the same routine as we had all week. The front desk folks, who were great and gracious through the entire tourney, actually appeared to be getting a kick out of the whole thing.
After Friday’s win, Palmer was asked about his pitching, and who he intended to throw the next day.
“We’ll see,” Palmer said. “I know this. We’re going to have to break out the bats.”
USM did just that, piling up 25 runs in two games, outslugging the Blazers 16-10 in the first game and holding off UAB 9-7 in the second.
In the opener, it appeared a phone call to the Days Inn wouldn’t be necessary, with the Golden Eagles trailing by five runs after six innings.
Then came an 11-run seventh inning that suddenly had USM ahead 15-9.
Hoffpauir drove in six runs in the inning on a pair of home runs, including a grand slam that bounced into the parking lot of the Burger King sitting across the street beyond the stadium grounds.
Tubb, who came out of the bullpen early, allowed an unearned run over 2 1/3 innings to pick up the win. Josh Grant allowed just a hit and a walk over the final 1 2/3 inning.
The teams combined for 26 runs on 27 hits, including 15 by UAB.
We called the Days Inn. One more night in Houston.
In the rematch that evening, USM scored six runs with two outs in a third inning capped by Lowery’s grand slam and the Golden Eagles held on.
Adam Smith picked up the win in relief, allowing two earned runs over 4 2/3 innings.
USM’s four game onslaught sent the Golden Eagles into the championship game for a second consecutive season, a first for the program.
The Golden Eagles ran into Texas Christian University for the title after the Horned Frogs pulled the same stunt as USM on the other side of the bracket, taking down tourney host, the University of Houston, twice on Saturday.
For a fourth consecutive day we checked out of the Days Inn, this time for good.
Russum got the nod, and allowed three runs over the first two innings, which, surprisingly, turned out to be more than enough for TCU starting pitcher Clayton Jerome.
USM managed just six hits, and did not score until Lowery tripled in the eighth inning and scored in Griffin’s sacrifice fly.
Jerome allowed just four hits through 7 1/3 innings. For USM, Ezell relieved Russum, and gave USM a chance, keeping TCU off the scoreboard with 4 1/3 innings of scoreless ball.
Five Golden Eagles were named to the All-Tournament team, including Willcutt, Hoffpauir, Shepherd, Frith and Cashion.
USM’s remarkable run landed the Golden Eagles a second seed at the Baton Rouge Regional, where the Golden Eagles lasted three games before seeing the curtain come down on the season.
The memorable spring saw USM finish with 45 wins, which still stands third on the single-season list behind 2003 (47 wins) and 2017 (50 victories).
The season also marked the middle of a three-year run with at least 40 wins, and perhaps more importantly, provided the key link in a chain of nine consecutive NCAA Regional appearances ignited by the 2003 team.
And more often than not since then, the 2004 crew also helped expand Memorial Day’s reach locally to include baseball, with extra games wrapped in red, white and blue bunting revealed in the morning.