The opening of the college baseball season offered fans the first opportunity to see the teams that make up the new-look Sun Belt Conference.
Southern Miss, the early favorite to lead the Sun Belt and ranked No. 8 by College Baseball Nation, got their season underway in Hattiesburg by hosting the Liberty Flames.
Right-hander Tanner Hall was dominant over five scoreless innings in Friday’s season opener. Hall allowed Liberty just one base hit, and it was the only hit of the game for the Flames offense. Head coach Scott Berry went to the bullpen and got three hitless innings from Tyler Martin and one hitless frame from Justin Storn to close out the 3-0 shutout.
Southern Miss catcher Blake Johnson led the offense in Friday’s opener going 3-for-3 with a home run along with scoring after he reached base on a leadoff walk.
Matthew Adams and Kros Sivley combined to allow the Flames just a single run in Saturday’s middle game. While Liberty pitched well, runs driven in by Tate Parker and Gabe Lacy in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively, were the difference as the Golden Eagles secured the series with a 2-1 win.
Niko Mazza took the mound for Southern Miss on Sunday, and he was practically flawless as he struck out six and allowed just one run in 5 1/3 innings. Parker homered for the Golden Eagles, who tagged two different Liberty pitchers for three runs each. The 7-2 victory gave Southern Miss the series sweep and ensured that the Golden Eagles would remain the Sun Belt’s highest ranked team moving into the first full week of the season.
The opening weekend sweep of a quality Liberty ball club, and in the fashion in which they did it, allowing just three runs in 21 innings, will send the message to the rest of the Sun Belt that the newest member of the conference is also the best. The combination of great arms that can get outs and timely hitting will make the Golden Eagles tough to beat come conference play.
In addition to Hall, another conference player on the Golden Spikes watch list is Texas State pitcher Levi Wells. He was also on the mound Friday night as the Bobcats opened their season at home in San Marcos against Northwestern. Like Hall, Wells was dominant while tossing five shutout innings and striking out nine. The Bobcat offense exploded all weekend and led Texas State to a 3-0 start with victories of 12-4, 20-5, and 24-9.
In the series-clinching win on Saturday, all nine hitters in the Texas State lineup had at least one hit. Four Bobcats hit home runs and Cade Manning went 3-for-3 in the 20-run affair.
Sunday’s 24 runs came via 20 base hits, eight of them home runs including two by Chase Mora. Mora, a freshman, did not play in Friday’s game, but he also homered on Saturday to bring his early season total to three. The balanced offense had seven players with multiple hits.
Texas State, ranked No. 23 by College Baseball Nation, lost plenty of players from their 2022 team which pushed Stanford to the limit in the regionals last June, but their remaining talent was on display over the weekend as head coach Steven Trout always had his team ready to compete. If Southern Miss falters, the Bobcats will be ready to pounce.
Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Marshall, and Troy join Southern Miss and Texas State in the undefeated ranks, all at 3-0.
Not to be overlooked, South Alabama, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, No. 44 Louisiana, No. 43 Old Dominion, and ULM all finished the weekend with 2-1 records.
Early on, the Sun Belt promises to be competitive, but the grind of a full season has only just begun. The common understanding is that pitching wins championships. Southern Miss and Texas State have pitching, but the Golden Eagles are Sun Belt frontrunners. The season ahead will determine if the Bobcats can catch up, or if Southern Miss will separate from the pack.