By Robert Wilson
Southern Miss is one win away from sending retiring Scott Berry to the College World Series.
The Golden Eagles won Game 1 5-3 Sunday in the completion of Saturday’s game, but lost Game 2 to Tennessee 8-4 later Sunday in the best-of-three series in the Hattiesburg Super Regional.
Auburn Regional champion Southern Miss, 46-19, and Clemson Regional champion Tennessee, 42-20, play in deciding Game 3 Monday at 5 pm on ESPN2 and ESPN plus. The winner will be one of the eight teams in the College World Series. Southern Miss has been to the CWS once, in 2009 when Corky Palmer was retiring. Berry was an assistant coach on that team and replaced Palmer the next season. Tennessee has been to the CWS five times, the last time two years ago.
Southern Miss has the major advantage playing at home. The Golden Eagles have won 27 of 32 games at home and Tennessee has lost 13 of 19 games on the road. Today’s games announced attendance was 5,820, the second largest crowd in Pete Taylor Park/Hill Denson Field history.
Southern Miss got off to a great start in Game 2 and led 4-0 when leadoff hitter and junior centerfielder Matt Etzel hit a triple when Tennessee centerfielder Hunter Ensley barely missed a diving catch, and the ball went to the wall to lead off the third inning. Junior shortstop Dustin Dickerson followed with a run-scoring single for a 1-0 lead and junior designated hitter Slade Wilks hit a single. Then senior first baseman Christopher Sargent hit a three-run home run off the scoreboard in left field (his 14th of the season) for a 4-0 lead.
With All-American pitcher Tanner Hall – who came into the game with a 12-3 record and 2.08 earned run average (ninth lowest in the country) – on the mound, things looked promising for Southern Miss to sweep the series, but Tennessee answered with six runs in the top of the fourth inning, the biggest blow a three-run home run by first baseman Blake Burke. Burke’s home run went way over the right fence and was measured at 479 feet. Tennessee added two more runs in the fifth and freshman left-hander Kros Sivley replaced Hall with one out. Hall allowed six hits and six earned runs with five strikeouts and only one walk in 4 1/3 innings.
Sivley held Tennessee scoreless the rest of the way, but Tennessee starter Chase Dollander and reliever Chase Burns limited Southern Miss to two baserunners – one hit (a leadoff single to Dickerson in the fifth inning) and one walk (a leadoff walk to senior third baseman Danny Lynch in the ninth inning) – and no runs in the final five innings. Dollander – who was still throwing upper 90s miles per hour fastballs in the late innings – allowed 7 hits and 4 runs with 7 strikeouts and only 1 walk in 8 innings and threw 111 pitches to improve to 7-6 this season. Burns – who hit 100 on the radar gun – didn’t allow a hit in the ninth inning.
“Dollander was really good. We heard he was good coming in,” said Berry, who was retiring after 14 years as Southern Miss head coach, on the postgame radio show. “Dollander was hitting 96 and 97 in the late innings and Burns came in and he was hitting triple digits. We drew a tough hand today. Everything is back in the middle of the ring. It’s do or die for both teams. We have a sense of urgency. We have been here before. We were there at Auburn last week and we were able to pull it out. We will draw from that experience and move forward. Tanner made a great pitch to the kid that hit the three-run homer. His ball sunk down and away and the kid made a really good swing on it. He’s a big strong kid and he hit that thing a long way. We will have (Madison-Ridgeland Academy alumnus and sophomore right-hander Niko) Mazza (who hasn’t pitched in the Super Regional) and (sophomore right-hander Will) Armistead. I told Armistead today you are doing to be a part of what happens in this series. So, no matter what happened in that first game (Armistead had a tough outing in Game 1, allowing two runs in 1/3 inning of relief), you flush that and get ready to come back tomorrow.”
“They got the big hit,” Sargent said. “We are going to be ok. We are going to play hard tomorrow. We are going to give it our all. It’s going to be a dogfight.”
“A winner take all game to go to the College World Series. That’s what you dream of as a kid,” Lynch said.
Madison Central High alumnus and Southern Miss 6-foot-7 junior left-hander Justin Storm pitched 4 1/3 innings of scoreless relief to lead the Golden Eagles to victory in Game 1.
Southern Miss led 4-0 with one out and one on in the bottom of the fifth inning when the second weather delay suspended play from Saturday until Sunday. When the game resumed Sunday morning, Armistead replaced Billy Oldham (who started had only allowed two hits and no runs in 4 1/3 innings Saturday) but got into trouble and loaded the bases with two out. Tennessee left fielder Jared Dickey hit a two-run single off Storm before he struck out designated hitter Griffin Merritt to end the inning.
Southern Miss scored one run in the fifth inning – junior outfielder Tate Parker doubled and scored on a fielder’s choice – and that was enough for Storm, who allowed only one hit and no runs the rest of the way. In the bottom of the ninth, Storm hit No. 9 hitter and catcher Cal Stark with one out but struck out leadoff hitter and shortstop Maui Ahuna and got Ensley to ground out into a fielder’s choice for the final out of the game. Parker hit a two-run triple in the first inning to get the Golden Eagles to get off to a 2-0 lead. Dickerson and Northwest Rankin High and freshman second baseman Nick Monistere – the 2022 PriorityOne Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Player of the Year – hit solo home runs to give Southern Miss a 4-0 lead.
“Stormy came in and had a big-time performance,” Berry said. “(Junior catcher) Rodrigo (Montenegro) made two big plays to slow down Tennessee’s momentum (he threw out a runner stealing at second for the first out and then caught a popup for the second out in the sixth inning). Billy (senior starting pitcher Billy Oldham) pitched a great game and had the Tennessee batters off balance until the weather delay. I hate it for Billy, but I was happy we were able to complete the win.”