By Robert Wilson
Tennessee has one of the best and deepest pitching staffs in the country and three Vol pitchers shut out Southern Miss 5-0 Monday in the deciding third game of the Hattiesburg Super Regional, ending the Golden Eagles’ season one short of getting retiring Scott Berry to his first College World Series as a head coach.
Drew Beam, Aaron Combs and Chase Burns combined to limit Southern Miss to seven singles and had 12 strikeouts and only two walks to keep the Golden Eagles from earning their second trip in school history to Omaha.
The loss ended the outstanding career of Berry, who was at Southern Miss for 23 years, the first nine as an assistant under the late Corky Palmer and the last 14 as a head coach. Berry was an assistant on the only Southern Miss team to go to the CWS in 2009. Palmer retired that season and Berry took over in 2010. Berry finished with a 528-276-1 record and as the school’s winningest baseball coach.
Southern Miss finished 46-20 – the only team in the country to win at least 40 games for the seventh consecutive season. The Golden Eagles were one of two teams (Stanford was the other) to host back-to-back Super Regionals in the past two seasons. Southern Miss lost to eventual champion Ole Miss in last year’s Hattiesburg Super Regional. Southern Miss won 27 of its last 33 games this season.
Tennessee, 43-20, advances to the CWS and meets No. 5 national seed LSU Friday in a first-round game at Omaha.
While the loss was disappointing to Berry, his team and the Golden Eagle fans – which filled Pete Taylor Park/Hill Denson Field with an announced attendance of 5,809 – there was a celebration of Berry’s career after the game. The fans gave Berry a standing ovation after the game. Berry – who will be replaced by pitching coach Christian Ostrander – talked to his players one final time in short left field after the game, then greeted hundreds of family and friends afterwards. Tennessee’s coaches and players also recognized Berry’s accomplishments and congratulated him on his exceptional career.
“I’m so honored to be here for 23 years. It is a special place. There will be a part of me that will stay here forever,” said an emotional Berry postgame on the radio interview with play-by-play announcer John Cox. “I know there are people who have invested in us that are no longer with us. My buddy, Coach Palmer, I know he’s smiling, and I know several others who aren’t with us. It was special year. We were able to accomplish a lot, most of the goals that we set. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to complete the ultimate goal to get to Omaha with the opportunity to win a national championship. There is nothing this group needs to be ashamed of. They accomplished a lot – 46 wins, (Sun Belt) conference tournament title, regional tournament title and hosted another super. There are so many blessings I’m grateful for. I had the opportunity to have one of the best jobs in the country. I really believe that. It’s about the people who surround it, not just the players and the coaches, it’s the fans and friends and all the relationships that have been built all the way.”
“Coach Berry has created the player and the man I am today, and I give him a lot of credit. He means the world to me,” Southern Miss junior shortstop Dustin Dickerson said, fighting back tears. “We tried our hardest to do it for him. Coach Berry will be in the roost (Southern Miss’ rightfield area for the fans) and in the dugout (next season). He is a baseball lifer. We couldn’t be more happier to play for him. I don’t remember much about the first time I met Coach Berry. I remember he said he wasn’t going to bring me in if he didn’t like me. We would have loved to put a stamp on it and bring him to the promised land. I know he’s proud of us and I’m proud of this team as well. If there is one man that’s like Coach Berry, it is him (Ostrander) and he’s going to lead it in the right direction.”
“Coach Berry has been so good to me my whole career,” Southern Miss senior first baseman Christopher Sargent said. “I can’t be more thankful for him. From the minute I shook his hand in his office and he offered me. Shaking a man’s hand means a lot, people don’t do that a lot nowadays. But when I shook his hand, and he gave that firm handshake I knew this was where I wanted to go. He was hardnosed and he would do anything for you, and I would do anything for him. He’s like a father figure. He’s been that man you looked up to. He lives life the right way. I started off a little slow this year, but Coach Berry pulled me off to the side and said he still had confidence in me. He told me I had a great career here. Everyone loves him. There is a reason why these fans come out and holler 40 (Berry’s number). Coach Berry leaves a legacy. He’s one of the best guys you will ever meet.”
“It’s really hard to take in. We never wanted this to end,” Southern Miss All-American junior pitcher Tanner Hall said. “We knew at some point it would come to an end, whether we were winning it or losing out. It’s tough to see Coach Berry go through something like that. He’s poured his heart out into this game and this program. The emotions are definitely flowing right now. He was telling us to keep our heads up, but at the same time it hurts us a lot to think that his career is over here. I remember the first time I met Coach Berry. I went into his office, I was actually pretty scared of Coach Berry. He’s a scary dude. I was like, ‘Gosh, this guy means business.’ I will never forget how he talked about how they would develop me and I really invested in it and believed it. I got the best coaches and the best program possible. It developed me into the pitcher I am right now. When Coach Berry was in the dugout, he would yell out to trust this pitch. There were a lot of people talking in the dugout, but I would hear his voice every time. That gave me total conviction to make that pitch right there. It gave me the ultimate confidence. This team was gritty. We never really backed down to a challenge. We started off kind of slow during the year. I feel like that fired us up and we could have easily rolled over, and said, ‘ok, this isn’t our year,’ but we kept fighting, to the conference tournament, backs against the wall, one loss away from getting sent home, we go out and win it. Same thing in the regional, we were dogs and we got out there and win that thing. That was our identity this year. We weren’t giving up no matter what. It didn’t matter who was on the mound or who was in the box, it was going to be a dogfight no matter who we were playing or where we were. This team was old with a lot of veterans. That’s what got us this far. We really showed who we were. I wish I could play here until I was 45 years old. It’s a one of a kind. Until the day I die, I’m going to be Southern Miss To The Top.”
Beam allowed all seven singles, had seven strikeouts, and walked only one in 6 innings to improve to 9-4. Combs pitched to only one batter, he struck out leadoff hitter and junior centerfielder Matt Etzel, then Burns came in and threw the final 2 2/3 innings with four strikeouts and only one walk to earn his second save this year. Southern Miss had 11 runners left on base, including at least one in seven of the nine innings.
“Tennessee is really good. We knew that. The elite arms that they had,” Berry said. “Drew Beam, their starter, was really good and when they can get to Burns, it’s pretty tough to get anything off of him. They are a good ball club, and at the end of the day, they outplayed us in those two games, and we just came up short. We just couldn’t string the hits together. We didn’t have any walks or hit batters, anything to try to create momentum. Hats off to their pitchers.”
Tennessee took a 1-0 lead in the second inning and then Zane Denton hit a three-run home run (his 16th this season) in the fifth inning to give Tennessee a 4-0 lead. Leadoff hitter Maui Ahuna hit a solo home run off the scoreboard in left field for a 5-0 lead in the seventh inning.
Southern Miss won Game 1 5-3 Sunday morning after play was suspended Saturday night, but Tennessee came back from a 4-0 deficit for an 8-4 victory in Game 2 later Sunday and force a third and deciding third game.