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Southern Miss baseball looks to defend Sun Belt title

Slade Wills leads Southern Miss hitters with 14 home runs this year as the Golden Eagles head into the 2024 Sun Belt Tournament (Photo courtesy of USM Athletics)

After winning 10 of 11 games to end the regular season, the Southern Miss baseball team appears ready for this week’s Sun Belt Tournament in Montgomery, Ala. With a 5-3 victory over Texas State in Saturday’s regular season finale, the Golden Eagles (37-18, 20-10 Sun Belt) will enter the conference tournament as a two-seed and look to defend their 2023 title.

How it happened

Going into the final series of the year, Southern Miss had a small chance to earn the top seed for the Sun Belt Tournament, considering Louisiana (40-16, 23-7) had it virtually locked up after a Thursday night win against South Alabama.

Therefore, a win during Saturday’s rain-induced double-header against Texas State secured the two-seed for Southern Miss before they finished Sunday with a senior night win in front of a sold-out crowd.

With the Golden Eagles down 2-1 in the fifth inning, Gabe Broadus drew a walk, then stole his way to third base on a catcher miscue. Ozzie Pratt then hit a single into right to tie the game. Senior standout Slade Wilks – in his final regular season game at Pete Taylor Park – delivered during the very next at-bat with an RBI double that would put the Golden Eagles up for good.

What the coach said

Sunday was a big win for the seniors but also for head coach Christian Ostrander. Ostrander etched himself into the history books by surpassing his predecessor Scott Berry for most wins (37) during year one at the helm.

“I’m so proud of our guys for gutting it out and winning the series,” Ostrander said. “This team is close. There’s a lot of unity, leadership, and a lot of experience. This season has been a blast for me and a dream come true. For Coach Berry to think that I was the guy to run this program means a lot to me.”

The numbers don’t lie

It was fitting that Wilks dominated the plate during the three-game series against Texas State as he extended his hitting streak to 28 games, tying for the third-longest in school history with Kevin Young (1990). Additionally, Pratt extended his hitting streak to 13 games.

Despite the Sun Belt’s strength as a conference, Southern Miss remains the lowest team when it comes to RPI, ranked at No. 34. Ostrander’s squad is ranked by Baseball America as the No. 25 team in the country.

The gauntlet of Montgomery

While there are only 10 of 16 teams playing in the Sun Belt Tournament, which begins Tuesday, Southern Miss will begin play on Wednesday. Unlike the rest of the tournament with a double elimination format, the opening day’s first round matchups between Coastal Carolina (7) and Georgia State (10) along with Old Dominion (8) and South Alabama (9) is single elimination.

Should the Golden Eagles win Wednesday’s game against the highest-seed round one winner, they will turn around and play the victor between Troy (3) and Appalachian State (6) on Thursday. If Southern Miss wins both Wednesday and Thursday, they’d earn a rest day on Friday. Otherwise, they will play every day until two losses or Sunday’s championship.

Has Southern Miss done enough to host a regional?

The short answer is probably not. Anything short of winning the conference tournament would more than likely land Southern Miss as a two or three-seed when the NCAA Tournament begins later this month. Out of the Sun Belt teams vying to host, Louisiana has the best shot.

Historically a multi-bid conference, the Sun Belt has sent more than one team to the NCAA Tournament in 28 of the last 34 seasons.

Other Mississippi teams

Southern Miss’ in-state counterparts will begin conference tournament play this week as well. Ole Miss, coming off a poor showing against LSU, will need to win the entire SEC Tournament if they want to return to the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels (12) will start out against Mississippi State (5) on Tuesday in Hoover, Ala. as the Bulldogs are in a prime spot to host a regional. Like the Sun Belt Tournament, Tuesday’s action will be single elimination with the remaining eight teams taking on a double-elimination format. Mississippi State is currently ranked by Baseball America as the No. 15 team in the nation.

Jackson State will also participate in the SWAC Tournament, which begins on Wednesday in Atlanta, Ga. If the Tigers want to make the NCAA Tournament, they will need to win the entire conference tournament as the SWAC typically gets just one bid.

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