When Southern Mississippi welcomes Tennessee to Game 1 of the Hattiesburg Super Regional this afternoon, the action on the field (finally and thankfully) takes the spotlight away from a lead-up week replete with restaurant and hotel smack, some good-natured ribbing, some not so much, and in general, an issue being adjudicated in the court of public opinion.
What a relief it will be to have the issue that matters most, an invitation to Omaha for the Men's College World Series, settled objectively on the grass and dirt, not on paper or online.
For casual observers, this matchup might appear David vs Goliath, Sun Belt vs SEC, but college baseball is one sport where key equalizers often come into play and from where one least expects it. Ask Penn, the Ivy League 4 seed, whom Southern Miss had to beat twice just to get here.
And strategy comes into play as well. Southern Miss has announced that ace pitcher Tanner Hall, who led his conference in ERA this season, will pitch Game 2, not Game 1, when Billy Oldham starts.
Oldham, like most of the Eagle pitching staff, was a key part of how they came through the losers bracket in the Auburn Regional, after losing their first game in which Hall went nine, gave up one, and drew no decision in an extra-inning defeat.
As well as having the pitcher ERA champ, Southern Miss also saw Slade Wilks lead its league in conference game home runs. But, it was the rest of the veteran order, Danny Lynch, Christopher Sargent, and Dustin Dickerson, all in double digit dingers, that came through in key spots when USM was fighting to stay alive in elimination games.
Besides Hall and Oldham, retiring Head Coach Scott Berry calls on Niko Mazza, Mathew Adams, Kros Sivley, Will Armistead, and Justin Storm. Freshman two-way player Nick Monistere is also called on to pitch at times.
The Tennessee Volunteers come in with a reputation that precedes them. After a wire-to-wire front running 2022 season that met a sudden end in the Knoxville Super Regional, when UT was left home by Notre Dame, the 2023 campaign has been an up and down year.
Being swept by Missouri early in the year gets juxtaposed with sweeping Vanderbilt at home, and logging only one hit at the SEC Tournament in Hoover before heading back to Knoxville was then followed by a 3-0 run on the road (where the Volunteers have clearly struggled this year) in the Clemson Regional. That included a heavyweight title fight-esque extra-inning victory over the host Tigers, which itself included staying alive when an apparent game-winning double play by Clemson was reversed on review and extended the drama.
Despite the roller coaster season, the strength of the Volunteers is still the pitching staff, particularly impressive depth that permitted Head Coach Tony Vitello to utilize his group in several ways. Only two, Drew Beam and Chase Dollander, have started every game in which they appeared.
Other key hurlers, including Chase Burns, Zander Sechrist, and Andrew Lindsey, are just under 50/50 in starts and relief, while stoppers Kirby Connell and Seth Halvorsen have only a single start in 50+ appearances.
Hitting wise, the Volunteers don’t have anyone with 20 or more home runs, but the lineup includes five in double figures of the 122 team total: Griffin Merritt, Christian Moore, Blake Burke, Zane Denton (rumored to be a big Taylor Swift fan), and Jared Dickey.
How this Super Regional eventually tilts will be interesting to see. The host Golden Eagles love to play at home in front of a packed house of their fans, but they’ve also had trouble overcoming the SEC logo at times, losing a home regional to Mississippi State in 2017 and a Super Regional to Ole Miss just last year, after they survived a gauntlet regional and outlasted LSU.
As for Tennessee, which team will emerge, the team that was one (hit) and done in the SECT or the one that overcame road woes at Clemson and rose to the challenge.
The most satisfying part for all concerned has to be that it will be settled on the field, as it should be.