Southern Miss opens up play as the No. 8 seed in the 2013 Conference Championship tomorrow when they take on No. 1 seed and regular season champion UAB at 4:30 p.m. from Collins Family Field in Tulsa, Okla.
The Blazers swept the Golden Eagles in the regular season meeting in Birmingham, but Southern Miss closed out their season having won three of their final six. Led by All-Freshman teamer Morgan McKeever, the Golden Eagles' lineup has packed pop with youth as of late with freshman Sarah Evans hitting .412 (7-for-17) over the past six games. The freshman from Livingston, Texas has belted three doubles in that span while also drawing a team-best four walks.
Senior hurler Beth Dietrich has won her last three C-USA outings and leads the team in the circle with a 3.65 ERA and looks to close out her Southern Miss career on a high note, beginning with UAB. Over the past six, Dietrich carries a 0.38 ERA, allowing just one earned run in her previous 18.2 innings.
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Below are team notes as the squad heads into their sixth-straight C-USA championship tournament.
Southern Miss Softball
2013 Conference USA Championship Notes
Game Time: 4:30 p.m. CT
Opponent: No. 1 seed UAB (35-14, 19-4 C-USA)
Location: Collins Family Field, home of the Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Live Stream: http://bit.ly/13yYQg4
Co-Head Coach: Jon Malgradi (Second year, 27-74 overall)
Co-Head Coach: Kirsten Voak (Second year, 27-74 overall)
Assistant Coach: Grady Moorhead
Graduate Assistant: Courtney Ramos
Manager: Jimmy Waltman
Athletic Trainer: Ben Elliott
Sports Information: Kyle Neaves
Facebook: Southern Miss Softball
Record: 14-40, 4-18 Conference USA
2012 Record: 13-34, 4-19 Conference USA
Returners: Three (two seniors, one junior)
Newcomers: Eleven (nine freshmen, one junior, one senior)
A New Energy
Southern Miss enters its second season under co-head coaches Jon Malgradi and Kirsten Voak. Malgradi and Voak – a married couple – are one of just three co-head coaching duos in the country. The others lead the UTEP and Tennessee programs.
The 2013 Championship will be the sixth-straight for Southern Miss, who has appeared in the tournament every season since 2008. However, tournament play has not been as successful for the team. Southern Miss advanced past the first round last in 2009 when they defeated Houston 5-4 before falling to UTEP by the same score in the next round.
Southern Miss enters the tournament as the No. 8 seed for the fourth-straight year. In 2009, the Golden Eagles were the No. 6 seed and the No. 7 seed in 2008.
Here are the championship results and seeds for Southern Miss since 2008:
2012 – (8) Southern Miss v. (1) Tulsa L, 8-0
2011 – (8) Southern Miss v. (1) Houston L, 4-2
2010 – (8) Southern Miss v. (1) East Carolina L, 8-0
2009 – (6) Southern Miss v. (3) Houston W, 5-4
2009 – (6) Southern Miss v. (7) UTEP L, 5-4
2008 – (7) Southern Miss v. (2) UCF L, 3-2
Against the Blazers
Southern Miss' first-round opponent, UAB, is one of the oldest rivalries for the program, dating back to the second year of the program's modern day existence, 2000. Including the season's series – in which the Blazers swept the Golden Eagles in Birmingham, Southern Miss is 23-22 all-time against UAB. The teams have met three times in C-USA championships with Southern Miss winning the previous matchup 3-1 in 2006 when the event was hosted in, ironically enough, Tulsa.
After losing four seniors and a junior to early graduation, the Golden Eagles entered the 2013 campaign as one of the youngest in the country. This season, the team has listed as many as seven freshmen on the 10-man lineup card. The positions held primarily by a true freshman this season include: Left field, center field, right field, third base, shortstop, first base. Additionally, two transfers in junior Taylor Beck and senior Kimberly Wagner mean the Golden Eagles have, at times due to injury, played with just one returner on the field from last season's squad – catcher Mackenzie Sher. Overall, the team returned just five players to begin the season and is down to three (Sher, Dietrich, LaPointe).
What Can't She Do?
True freshman Morgan McKeever transferred into the program in January and immediately made her mark on the 2013 season. The Tucson, Ariz., native began the year as the team's starting third baseman before an injury to starter Meaghen Nelson 11 games into the year forced her to move to second. After 17 games at second, a defection from the team put McKeever at shortstop where she has started the past 25 games. No other team member who has started at three positions has started more than five games there.
Assisting and Errorless
To expand on McKeever, prior to taking over the shortstop position, that spot in the defense had committed 10 errors through 29 starts. In McKeever's 25 games at short, she has committed just two errors and those came in the same game against Memphis back on April 6 meaning she has played 98 consecutive innings without making an error and has just seven on the year encompassing three positions. McKeever has also led the conference in assists with 123 for the majority of the season and enters the tournament second behind Houston's Holly Anderson (125).
LaPointe Having A Career Year in 2013
After spending the majority of her career as the backup catcher, senior Danielle LaPointe found her place in the starting lineup and defense – as an outfielder – in 2013. In three seasons, LaPointe had just 29 hits, six runs scored, five doubles, no homeruns and no stolen bases in 40 career starts. In 2013 alone, she has 29 hits, 12 runs scored, five doubles, a homerun and leads the team in stolen bases with six. Her batting average is also 25 points above her career average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage, 40 points above.
Starts 40 48
Hits 29 29
Runs 6 12
Doubles 5 5
Homeruns 0 1
Bases 34 37
Walks 6 10
Stolen Bases 0 6
Dietrich Closes Out Senior Campaign on High Note
Senior pitcher Beth Dietrich enters the 2013 Championship having won her last three C-USA starts (one at UCF, two against East Carolina) and has not allowed a run, earned or otherwise, in her last 11.2 innings to close out her career as a Golden Eagle. Dietrich will finish among Southern Miss' best pitchers of all-time, recording top 10 marks in innings pitched (7th/493), career wins (8th/27), strikeouts (9th/257), saves (3rd/4), and complete games (9th/44).
Making It Work
This season, the Southern Miss coaching staff has used a patchwork job at times to get it done on the field, and the players have bought into their roles to move the team to success. As many as five Golden Eagles are starting in positions in which they have no or minimal experience dating back to their travel ball days.
Each Southern Miss outfielder, freshmen Gary, Cleary, and Franson, was primarily a corner infielder last year in high school and travel ball. Freshman first baseman Sarah Evans was a catcher and had never played first before January and LaPointe, as previously mentioned, was a catcher before playing left field and eventually second base.
Improving in Year Two
With as many as six freshmen batting regularly in the lineup this season compared to just two last season, the 2013 Golden Eagles have still increased their numbers in at-bats, doubles, homeruns, total bases, walks, hit batters, on-base percentage, put outs and assists while their batting average and slugging percentage is just slightly off last year's pace. Additionally, the team improved their win total from last season (13) and has done it all playing a much tougher schedule. Southern Miss finished 211 in the RPI last year and enters the C-USA Tournament ranked No. 176.
Southern Miss put two student-athletes on the conference's All-Academic team for the first time in program history this week as Kimberly Wagner and Mackenzie Sher both garnered the award. Wagner, a senior transfer, has carried a 4.0 throughout her college career and will earn her degree in Sociology while the junior Sher has compiled a 3.8 cumulative GPA and is on pace to earn her degree in Psychology. It was the fourth-straight season the Golden Eagles have had someone named to the squad.