You can never have too much depth, especially heading into a season in which obstacles may be prevalent. Southern Miss head coach Scott Berry knows this, and has his team in a good position to not only reclaim the C-USA title, but go deep into the NCAA tournament as well.
“We’re very athletic, and on this team, there are a lot of guys that displayed the ability to move, which is exciting for us, which gives us different options throughout the course of the game to make those moves—where before, maybe we didn’t have that luxury,” said Berry of the depth on this year’s squad.
The Golden Eagles enter the 2021 campaign with a pitching staff of 21 pitchers, including four seniors, and a group of position players whose versatility cannot be overstated. Berry feels confident in the guys he has, a good mix of young talent, and upperclassmen with experience. That “young talent” is led by a trio of freshmen, outfielders Slade Wilks and Carson Paetow and infielder Cade Crosby.
“We have several guys, such as Will McGillis, that are able to play different positions,” said Berry as he continued to emphasize the depth of his team. “You’ve got Reed Trimble, who can move from the outfield to the infield. A young man that caught everybody’s eye was a true freshman named Cade Crosby. We used him primarily at shortstop but he can play the corners, play the middle, very gifted athlete, hits from the left side. Another guy is Christopher Sargent, who can swing between first and catcher if we needed him to. There’s a lot of flexibility that we have in our position players.”
When talking specifically about Wilks and Paetow, Berry had nothing but good things to say about the strides each made throughout fall camp.
“Certainly both those guys have shown the ability to hit the field this spring by what they did this fall. I thought Slade Wilks, as we got deeper into the fall, continued to improve. Certainly his mark was felt all the way until the last scrimmage game we had. Carson started out really hot, but I think over time, he had some struggles which is not a bad thing if you learn from them. Failure is not a bad thing. I think both of their upside to get better in this game and continue to develop is very high.”
As good as Southern Miss might be at the plate, it will be on the mound where Southern Miss will look to dominate. Four seniors from last year’s club returned, all pitchers, and freshmen Ben Ethridge and Chandler Best, a 2020 College Baseball Nation All-Texas Collegiate League (TCL) starter, will be consistent forces on the hill as well.
“I think so,” Berry responded when asked if his pitching staff was going to be this team’s centerpiece. “Based on what I saw this fall, our pitchers threw pretty well and seemed to be pretty consistent.”
Best exploded in 2020, finding his way into the starting rotation as a true freshman, though he showed room to improve after an 0-2 record and 11.12 ERA. Following a summer in the TCL in which he posted a 1.99 ERA and a solid fall, he appears to be even stronger.
Ethridge showed much of the same, though his stats were significantly better, with a 3-0 record and 2.29 ERA, striking out 26 in 19.2 innings pitched on his way to Collegiate Baseball freshman all-American honors. Heading into this spring, Ethridge will look to be one of Berry’s go-to relievers out of the bullpen, thanks to the consistency he showed, despite inexperience.
“He was a freshman all-American last year in a short season,” said Berry. “He was very consistent, really put up some outstanding numbers for us last year for us as a true freshman. I really see him as somebody that will work out of the bullpen this spring, whether it be in short relief or even long relief.”
On top of the players out on the field, the Golden Eagles also developed an invaluable level of team chemistry and experience through an unusually high number of scrimmages this fall, as Berry changed up the way fall camp ran.
“We were able to have more intersquads this year than we ever had in 21 years now that I've been here,” said Berry. “We actually logged in 21 scrimmage games. It seems like through a fall we only get in 12 to 13, so certainly we were able to get a lot more evaluation time in, which is live time, where pitchers are facing live hitters and hitters are facing live pitchers.”
That “live time” is important in fall practice every season, but more so this fall, considering that COVID-19 shut down several summer leagues and limited the opportunities for players to keep playing throughout the summer.
“There were some who did play in the summertime, but the majority of them didn’t,” Berry told College Baseball Nation. “One good thing about that, they were fresh both physically and mentally, and obviously hungry on the mental side to get back out there and compete. It took a little bit, it seems like, for the hitters to get back in their rhythm, but the fall proved to be really good for us, as I’m sure it did for everybody else across the country.”
Southern Miss has always had a slogan that the program lives by, “anybody, anytime, anywhere”. In years past, the Golden Eagles have always assembled a tough non-conference slate and received their fair share of tests in conference action as well. From Berry’s perspective, this season will be no different, even with other conferences such as the Big Ten opting to play a conference-only slate in order to minimize the effects of COVID-19.
“Nobody has told us any different, so we’re planning, as scheduled, to open up February 19 with a 55- game schedule which obviously includes both conference and non-conference,” Berry told College Baseball Nation. “I think that is what everybody in college baseball was kind of awaiting the word on. Is there going to be any adjustments schedule-wise? Because we’re all trying to make plans but nobody is telling us anything.”
“I’ve got 55 games scheduled with a very sound non-conference schedule as well as our Conference USA, pretty much a normal schedule.”
As Southern Miss (and all programs across the country) prepares for the 2021 campaign, there are still a variety of unknowns regarding the way the season and the schedule will look. Even with those outside distractions, Berry does not feel his team has been affected, or lost any amount of focus on the year ahead.
“I think the mere fact that they’ve been without baseball and without one another, which would have normally happened in any other year prior, the focus was taken off all those outside things,” said Berry. “We talk a lot about worrying about the stuff that you can control and don’t try to worry about the things you can’t. Those are things we can’t control, so I think the focus from our guys was really good throughout the fall. . . .”