Photo Courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics

By Robert Wilson

       Thanks to a pair of outstanding performances by Metro Jackson alumni, Southern Miss is in the NCAA Tournament regional baseball championship game for the fourth consecutive season.

       Northwest Rankin alumnus and freshman second baseman Nick Monistere – the 2022 PriorityOne Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Player of the Year – was the hitting star with three hits and three runs batted in and Madison Central alumnus and 6-foot-7 junior left-handed pitcher Justin Storm was the pitching star and allowed only one hit with 10 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings of relief.

       The result was an 11-2 victory for No. 2 seed Southern Miss over No. 4 seed Penn Saturday night in the Auburn regional.

       Southern Miss, 44-18, and Penn, 34-15, play again Monday at 2 p.m. for the regional championship. The winner plays Tennessee this weekend in the Super Regional.

       Saturday night’s win was Southern Miss third consecutive victory facing elimination after losing to No. 3 Samford in 10 innings in Friday’s first round. The Golden Eagles bounced back to defeat No. 1 seed Auburn Saturday and Samford Sunday afternoon before playing Penn Sunday night.

       Monistere had some clutch hitting to help ignite the win Sunday night. He had a run-scoring single in the second inning for a 1-1 tie, then he walked and scored from first on Carson Paetow’s triple for a 3-2 Southern Miss lead in the sixth inning. Monistere’s two RBI single gave Southern Miss a 6-2 lead in the ninth inning. The Golden Eagles scored eight runs in the ninth inning to take an 11-2 lead.

       Storm replaced Madison Ridgeland Academy alumnus and sophomore right-handed starter Nick Mazza in the fourth with the bases loaded and one out. Storm struck out the first two batters he faced to get out of the inning. He retired the next 14 consecutive batters, including five straight strikeouts, before allowing a single with two outs in the ninth inning. In a similar situation in last year’s regional at Hattiesburg, Storm pitched five scoreless innings in relief against LSU to force a regional championship game. Southern Miss went on to defeat LSU in the regional final before losing to eventual national champion Ole Miss in the Super Regional.

       “I was proud of how our young men responded with our backs against the wall,” said Southern Miss coach Scott Berry, who is retiring this season after 14 seasons at head coach. “We were going to draw strength from our past experiences and use our older guys to help us in the same situation we found ourselves last year. Justin came in just like last year. It was total dominance. I’m not exaggerating, that’s some of the best stuff I’ve seen in a long time. That’s the stuff you see in the big leagues. He was dialed in.”

       “He was throwing invisaballs,” Penn coach Joseph Blood said. “He really chewed us up. He was aggressive and had command of his fastball and a hard slider. We just couldn’t pick it up. He is a big kid, and he was throwing downhill, that has something to do win it. He was good. You’ve got to tip your cap to a guy like that.”

       “My best pitch was my slider. I felt good using it with any count,” Storm said. “I had a lot of confidence with it and (Southern Miss pitching) Coach (Christian) Oz (Ostrander) kept going back to it. I kept them off balance and kept them guessing.”

“(Senior shortstop) Dustin (Dickerson) gave me his bat because mine was all dented up and I wasn’t able to use them,” Monistere said. “I told him I would give him credit for letting me use his bat.”

       A year ago, Monistere led Northwest Rankin to the MHSAA Class 6A state championship, the first one since 2005.

       “I usually just try to draw for that experience to keep me calm,” Monistere said. “I try to draw from where my mind was mentally (at Northwest Rankin) when I get in big situations.”

       Now, Berry needs to find which pitchers can go Monday.

       “We will have to go back to the roster and see what all we have,” Berry said. “Everybody that’s available that hasn’t thrown, certainly we will have to use. Right now, we have momentum going into it and right now I feel like a star is born every day. We will be looking for somebody to shine for us. I’ve told them for two games now, our biggest allie is our mind and our mental makeup. These guys believe in themselves. I hope we feel that sense of urgency and the path we have taken to where we are now. We hope we will be ready to play.”