Red-hot Eagles ready for C-USA tourney

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 31, 2003

HATTIESBURG &045; A little maturity, plenty of offensive firepower and some timely pitching have resulted in plenty of smiles for Southern Miss.

Just not of the ear-to-ear variety.

While the Eagles posted their first regular season Conference USA championship over the weekend, they realize all that did was give them the No. 1 seed heading into the conference tournament &045; where their ultimate fate may be decided &045; beginning Wednesday at Tulane’s Turchin Stadium.

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Currently ranked 15th in the nation in one poll, the Eagles hope to finish the tournament solid not only to get into the NCAA Tournament but possibly host a regional &045; unlike last year when the Eagles went into a tailspin the weekend prior to the tournament.

The Eagles will open with Charlotte at 12:30 Wednesday.

&uot;We won the regular season, but you’d like to win the conference tournament, too,&uot; USM head coach Corky Palmer said. &uot;We feel like we’ve got a chance to host an NCAA regional. Last season we lost four in a row (at the end). We made some adjustments, and the kids are a year old and have grown up some. They’ve been on a mission, and they’ve done a good job.&uot;

What better way to end it than by taking two of three at Houston, who has been among the top teams in the conference in recent seasons. That marked a solid finish for the Eagles, who swept South Florida the weekend prior after dropping two of three at East Carolina the weekend before that.

&uot;We swung the bats real well,&uot; said second baseman Jarrett Hoffpauir, the former Vidalia High School star now in his second year with the Eagles. &uot;Our pitchers threw well. We put it all together. It’s cool. It’s nice to win a regular season title, but we’re not done yet. We’ve got to hopefully win the conference tournament. Hopefully we’ll be able to host (a regional). That would be nice.&uot;

Hoffpauir is putting up better numbers at the plate, but the biggest story out of Hattiesburg is the emergence of the team’s pitching and defense. The Eagles have scored runs from day 1, but it’s been more of a combined effort in recent weeks.

Bob McCrory, Anthony Dewitt and Stephen Castleman have formed a formidable weekend rotation with Cliff Russum emerging as the fourth starter for mid-week games. The Eagles have a league-best team ERA of 3.72 to their opponents’ 7.09.

&uot;We’ve hit all year, but the pitching has come on,&uot; Palmer said. &uot;The pitching has come on, and the defense has come on. We were eighth in the conference in defense at point in the year. We hit all year, but when we started doing both of that we were a hard team to beat.&uot;

The Eagles’ .318 batting average is also tops in the conference, but Hoffpauir’s .301 average isn’t where he would like it to be. But two other categories are higher than normal &045; eight home runs and 46 RBI &045; fit nicely into a lineup with sluggers Jeff Cook and Clint King, each of whom have 20 homers and at least 65 RBI.

&uot;I got a little stronger in the off-season,&uot; Hoffpauir said. &uot;Hopefully I’ll get (my average) up down the stretch. But I learned from last year what pitches you can and can’t drive &045; things like that. I’ve been pretty much everywhere in the lineup. I’ve led off some games. It doesn’t matter. Our lineup is strong one through nine.&uot;

The lineup may be the biggest strength going into a tournament with teams playing games on consecutive days. It’s this time of the year when those with the most pitching depth survives, and the Eagles hope to get quality starts out of their top arms while chasing the opponents’ starters.

&uot;The longer your starters go, the better,&uot; Palmer said. &uot;We’ve got to get it from the bullpen. I don’t think we’ve lost but one game when we had the lead into the seventh inning.&uot;

But the key will be the other top teams in the conference &045; namely TCU, Houston and host Tulane. The Green Wave ruined everything for the Eagles last year with not only a sweep in the final regular season weekend but eliminated them in the tournament.

&uot;Now is the time we need (pitching),&uot; Hoffpauir said. &uot;If we play (Tulane), it’ll be in the finals. They’ll be after us. Everybody down there will be capable of beating you. We’ll have to approach every one of them like it’s a big game &045; which they are &045; and I think we’ll be fine.&uot;