College baseball in the state of Mississippi is always exciting.
Mississippi State won the 2021 National Championship and Ole Miss, once ranked #1 in the country this season, are always dominant figures in the SEC.
But, this season, a different team in Mississippi has led the pack: Southern Miss.
Riding a 15-game win streak, Southern Miss has dominated the entire season, sitting at 33-8 overall and 16-2 in Conference USA play.
“It’s just been lots of fun here lately. We’re just playing good baseball,” Southern Miss slugger Slade Wilks said. “We’ve been playing with a lot of confidence, and playing with a lot of confidence is really fun.”
Last season was successful for the Golden Eagles, but they were close to achieving much more.
Southern Miss won 40 games on the season, but lost two heartbreakers to Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA Tournament and fell in a winner-take-all game against Ole Miss in the Oxford Regional Final in the NCAA Tournament.
The Golden Eagles lost Reed Trimble, their strongest hitter, to the MLB Draft, but returned the majority of their offense for this season.
“We got that late postseason experience going into this year; we just know what to expect,” Wilks said. “All of our offense is back from last year. We’re just building on last year with another year of experience.”
That extra year of experience has been important for the Golden Eagles, as they have played well this season with wins against in-state rivals Mississippi State and Ole Miss. They also won series over Louisiana and Louisiana Tech among others.
Through six series of conference play, Southern Miss holds a four game lead in the Conference USA standings.
“We were on the verge of being on the top of our conference this year, and that’s something we go out to do every year — be at the top of our conference,” Wilks said. “We knew we could be a really good team… You’ve been able to see it come together more; we’ve been playing some really good baseball. I still think we could obviously be a lot better, but we’re starting to play good.”
Southern Miss is ranked fifth in RPI, propelled by its elite pitching staff. During conference play, the Golden Eagles’ pitching staff has recorded a 2.45 ERA.
“It takes a lot of pressure off of us,” Wilks asid. “It’s really fun to go out and watch our pitchers pitch. Not just our starters, but the guys coming out of the ‘pen. We just have a really good pitching staff.”
The offense has performed nearly as well with Wilks leading the way. He struggled in his freshman season, hitting .158 in 30 games. But, his sophomore season has been entirely different. Wilks is hitting .319 with six homers.
“Coming in as a freshman, I was just trying to do too much at the plate,” Wilks said. “I went off to summer ball, found myself again and let that carry over. It was just maturity.”
Wilks has become a leader on the Golden Eagles, both at the plate and in the clubhouse. But, he said he isn’t the only leader in the program.
“Our team is really built full of leaders,” Wilks said. “We have some great offensive leaders on this team.”
Team continuity has been a reason Southern Miss has succeeded in 2022. While Wilks notes that “they haven’t accomplished anything yet,” the Golden Eagles could be on their way to accomplishing more than they have since 2009, when they appeared in the College World Series.
“We’re about as close as a group of college guys could be,” Wilks said. “We’re just out there having fun. It’s nice, we take it one game at a time.”