HATTIESBURG - The premiere matchup in Conference USA this weekend featured two teams entering play about as evenly matched as one can find. Louisiana Tech with a record of 18-7 traveled east to Hattiesburg to face Southern Mississippi with their equally impressive record of 17-7. Both teams entered the weekend 5-1 in conference play.
The two teams were ranked Nos. 29 and 30 in the College Baseball Nation poll coming into the weekend series, just to further illustrate how close these teams were and how pivotal this series could be.
Southern Miss staked starting pitcher Tanner Hall to a 2-0 lead in the first inning of Friday night's opener. Hall’s counterpart, Jonathan Fincher, recorded an out on his first pitch of the ballgame. His second pitch was a double. His fourth pitch was a two-run home run by Reece Ewing. After two consecutive singles and only twelve pitches in, a mound visit looked to be the end of Fincher’s night.
But, to his credit, Fincher gave his team three-plus innings before departing, and while Lane Burroughs and his staff would have liked a better outing, the other option of going to the bullpen earlier than the fourth inning of the weekend opener would have been less than ideal.
Will McGillis and Carson Paetow both homered for the Golden Eagles to pace the offense, and Gabe Montenegro added two RBI. McGillis was 3-for-3 in the seven spot in the lineup.
The Golden Eagles controlled this game the entire way en route to an 8-2 win. Hall dazzled in his outing, tossing eight strong innings and striking out eleven without walking any Bulldogs batters. The two runs attributed to Hall were unearned.
LA Tech countered on Saturday with left-hander Cade Gibson to right the ship. Hunter Riggins took the bump for Southern Miss. For the second straight day, the Golden Eagles took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning.
Trailing 2-1 in the fifth, Steele Netterville added to his double earlier in the game with a two-out three-run home run to give LA Tech a 4-2 lead; it was the only real mistake Riggins made on Saturday, and it cost him the game.
Meanwhile, Gibson was unrelenting as he got his team through seven innings without allowing any more Golden Eagles to score. Kyle Crigger came in to handle the ninth for the Bulldogs and he promptly shut the door and helped even the series with the 4-2 win to set up a deciding game on Sunday afternoon. 5,706 fans attended the Saturday game, which set a new single-game attendance record for Pete Taylor Park.
Hurston Waldrep took the mound for the Golden Eagles on Sunday and was dominant. For the third straight game, Southern Miss scored in the bottom of the first to take the early lead. Tech was already going to their bullpen in the second inning in what turned out to be a long weekend for the staff.
The Golden Eagles offense was led by Paetow who hit a two-run home run and Ewing who hit a three-run shot of his own to blow the game open at 8-0 in the seventh.
Waldron went seven scoreless innings and allowed just one hit while striking out ten. Dalton Rogers pitched the eighth and ninth to preserve the one-hit 8-0 shutout for Southern Miss.
“Today was all about the sole rights of first place between two good teams and good programs,” Southern Miss head coach Scott Berry said after the Sunday win. “It’s our job to go out there and be accountable for the expectations that are placed on us. That was the challenge today, to do just that and get the momentum back in our favor.”
16,313 attendees took in the three-game series to make it the largest weekend attendance in the history of the Southern Miss program. The fans were treated to mostly error-free baseball, as the two teams played without committing an error on Friday and Sunday, and each team had one error on Saturday.
Southern Miss with the weekend series win is now 19-7 overall and 7-2 in the conference play and they hold a slight advantage over LA Tech which is now 18-9, 6-3 in conference play.
Southern Miss outscored LA Tech 18-6 over the weekend. Though the Golden Eagles won the series, a sweep was very much on the table as Coach Berry got three solid outings from his starting pitchers.
Moving forward, the Bulldogs will need to score more runs (their weekend high was four). Better to find out the first weekend of April than the last week of May as Lane Burroughs still has time to adjust his lineup. Both teams appear strong at the back of the bullpen, but the problem for the Bulldogs this weekend was getting to those arms before the games were all but over.
These two teams played some incredible baseball games against each other down the stretch last season, and there is no reason to believe that these two will not be matched up again with something important on the line next month. These are the top two teams in Conference USA, but with five teams nipping at their heels, it is not over by a long shot and there is a lot of April left before the final month of the season arrives.
Southern Miss rises to No. 19 in this week’s Top 50, while Louisiana Tech remains at No. 30.