Southern Miss captured its third C-USA championship in school history with a 3-2 win over Rice in the conference tournament on Sunday at Pete Taylor Park.
“Just how proud I am of our guys and how we dealt with the adversity this year with some injuries and be able to overcome it, but more than anything we’ve had chemistry from day one and it continues to this day,” said coach Scott Berry. “Honestly, we’ve earned this championship.”
Hayden Roberts got his first career start for Southern Miss and did not let the Owls build a substantial lead. Roberts pitched 4.2 innings and gave up a lone run on four hits. Roberts was replaced by Stevie Powers in the fifth, who also gave a solid effort for USM. Overall, Southern Miss deployed five pitchers from the dugout.
“We had to rely on the pitching and the defense and it showed up,” Berry said. “It came down to really a game of pitching, hitting and timely defense.”
The Owls got an early 1-0 lead on the Golden Eagles on an RBI single to left field from Dayne Wunderlich. Roberts was able to get out of the inning without giving up any more runs in the second.
Three innings later, Southern Miss got on the board due to a wild pitch from Rice’s C-USA Pitcher of the Year Jon Duplantier to bring in Chuckie Robinson for the score to tie the game up at 1-1.
“We got those timely hits,” Berry said. “Today, it happened a little bit here and there and through the game we were able to continue with that pitching and defense.”
Both teams were reeling for a breakthrough play heading into the frames following the fifth with the score tied at one apiece.
Then in the eighth with two outs, Daniel Keating stepped up to the plate and delivered an RBI double to bring in Tim Lynch to make the score 2-1 in Southern Miss’ favor.
With that score, the tie was broken headed into the crucial ninth inning. In the top of the ninth, the Golden Eagles were looking for one more run for insurance to keep the Owls at bay. They were able to get that run with a Storme Cooper single to left field to drive in Jake Sandlin for the 3-1 score. That score would hold for the final decision.
“I was just looking for something [to hit],” Keating said. “I got just enough bare on it.”
In the bottom of the ninth with Southern Miss looking to preserve their lead, Nick Sandlin was brought into the game for Kirk McCarty. On the last of three singles he gave up in the inning alone, a deep shot to left field, a runner advanced home to make the score 3-2.
Then, Grayson Lewis bypassed stopping at third and sprinted home to tie the game at three scores. Nick Sandlin grabbed the outfield ball and threw it to Nick Dawson, who then threw it to Chuckie Robinson for the final out — by inches at the home plate.
“It was an awesome play, and a great way to end the game,” Robinson said. “It was kind of a roller coaster, my heart kind of dropped. Fifteen seconds later, I’m riding on a high. I’m the happiest man in the world.”
The Golden Eagles captured their first Conference USA championship for the first time since 2010 in Houston against Rice. It is also their third conference title in C-USA.
With their C-USA title, Southern Miss clinches an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.