Vidalia product leads Eagles into NCAAs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 5, 2004

HATTIESBURG &045; Remember at the end of each year in elementary school when the principal handed out those perfect attendance certificates?

No one really liked those kids. They were thought to be goody-goodies, suck-ups, teachers’ pets.

It doesn’t work that way in sports. Cal Ripken Jr., Lou Gerhig, Brett Favre &045; names that are synonymous with durability at the highest level of athletics &045; are all heroes because people respect their courage.

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Professional athletes that fight through every bone-crushing tackle, every sharp pain, every bruised tendon become icons for their blue-collar heroics.

Southern Miss second baseman Jarrett Hoffpauir knows a little something about punching a clock.

When the second-seeded Golden Eagles (44-17) close the first day of the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional against the third-seeded College of Charleston (45-14) at 6:30 p.m. Friday, the Vidalia, La., product will have started 183 out of 183 career collegiate games.

In three years at USM, Hoffpauir has been a mainstay, never missing a start, much less a game.

His breakout season in 2004 is a main reason why the Eagles are making back-to-back tourney appearances for the first time since the 1990-91 seasons, and only the second time in program history.

&uot;He’s gotten a lot quicker and his (steps) down,&uot; USM head coach Corky Palmer said of his junior three-hole hitter, who leads the team in several offensive categories. &uot;He handles pitches and is able to drive them to right center while still maintaining his power to left field. He only strikes out once in every 36 at-bats. That’s almost unheard of with the type of numbers he puts up.&uot;

The actual strikeout-to-at-bat ratio is once every 32.25 plate appearances (8-258), which doesn’t malign Hoffpauir’s keen eyes at the dish.

For his career, Hoffpauir has been retired on pitches an implausible 58 times in 693 at-bats, averaging out to once every 12 official trips into the batter’s box.

Hoffpauir, who leads USM in RBIs (86), batting average (.403), hits (104) and total bases (166), and the Golden Eagles play the nightcap against the Cougars and their 12-0 ace Ryan Johnson, following No. 1 seed and host LSU’s entertaining of No. 4 Army.

&uot;They’ve got a good pitcher (Johnson) that we know of,&uot; Hoffpauir said of Charleston. &uot;He’s got pretty good numbers. Their batting average as a team is high like ours. They don’t play the competition we play, but they’re solid. We’ll have to go down there and swing the bat.&uot;

That’s something USM did quite a bit of in the Conference USA Tournament last week after it lost its opener to Memphis 10-5.

In four games coming out of the loser’s bracket, the Eagles scored 54 runs off 50 hits to reach the tourney final, where they cooled off and lost to Texas Christian 3-1.

In that four-game stretch, though, Hoffpauir went a combined 10 for 17, raising his average back above .400, with four homers, giving him 11 for the season.

&uot;The first game we kind of went through the motions,&uot; Hoffpauir recalled. &uot;We didn’t get good pitching, and we didn’t swing the bats too well. After that, we went back to our old selves.&uot;

Hoffpauir’s approach has made him an enticing target for this week’s Major League Baseball amateur draft that begins Friday.

USA Today/Sports Weekly named him a second-team All-American at second base where he has made six errors all year.

&uot;I’m trying not to think about the whole draft,&uot; Hoffpauir said. &uot;I hope to go down to Baton Rouge, play well and win some games.&uot;

He needs three hits to break the school’s single-season record of 106, set by Michael Artman in 1999. Hoffpauir’s 55 career doubles has him in a tied with Bill Selby (1991-92) and Andy Woodard (1990-93) for third behind Tommy Davis (1992-94), who holds the all-time mark with 58.

One more RBI and he’ll break a tie with Fred Cooley (1989) to claim the Eagles’ single-season mark in that category.

&uot;Jarrett is such a team player,&uot; Palmer said. &uot;He had a great week at the conference tournament and hopefully that’ll carry over to this week. He’s probably as good a second baseman as there is in the country.&uot;

Sports editor

Adam Daigle

contributed to this report.