The Golden Eagles defeated Florida 7-6 to earn a sweep and advance to the College World Series for the first time.
When Southern Miss Head Coach Corky Palmer first took over the reigns of the Golden Eagle baseball program ten years ago, his chief goal among his many was to take Southern Miss Baseball to the next level.
During the summer of 1997, when Palmer was announced as the 12th head coach in school history, he said of the program at that point in time, "I think the foundation of the program is in place. Our number one goal will be to be the best team in Conference USA, and expand from there. In college athletics, in order to be successful recruiting, you need to be playing in the postseason every year, and that is our goal."
Fast forward 11 years later and Palmer and company are doing just that. After a school-record fifth-straight postseason appearance and the most successful five-year run in school history, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles have come to be known as a team that many around the nation need to take notice.
Over the past five years, the Golden Eagles have had no less than 39 wins each season, surpassing the 40-win mark three times, and have played in five NCAA Regionals, including hosting the 2003 Hattiesburg Regional. The team has been just as successful in Conference USA play, winning the tournament and regular season titles in 2003.
With that success, the Golden Eagles have now established that tradition of competitiveness which is necessary to become a perennial power in the sport. With that being said, it's only fitting that the Hattiesburg, Miss., native - who is entering his 11th season as the head coach - has been at the helm of the program as it has soared, and continues to soar, to never-before-reached heights.
While Palmer credits his success to a solid coaching staff and a bevy of hard-working recruits over the last several years, it most likely comes as no surprise that Southern Miss has become a power under his direction. It wasn't a question of whether or not the Golden Eagles would become a success under his direction, but rather when that success would come.
The academic success of the baseball program is also a source of pride for Palmer. His team boasts the best APR (Academic Progress Rates) among male sports at the University. He currently has 16 players who have a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or better, including seven with a 3.5 GPA or better. Last Season Patrick Ezell and Trey Sutton were both named to the prestigious ESPN The Magazine/College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-American first team. In 2006, Marc Maddox, who is now playing professionally, earned his second consecutive Conference USA Scholar Athlete of the Year and was named to the prestigious ESPN The Magazine/CoSIDA Academic All-American first team. That marks his fourth C-USA Scholar Athlete of the Year and the sixth ESPN the Magazine Academic All-American during Palmer's tenure.
In 2007, Palmer led Southern Miss to a 39-23 record and a third place finish in C-USA with a 14-10 record. The Golden Eagles played well as usual at "The Pete" posting an impressive 24-7 home record. For the fifth-consecutive year Paler lead his team to the NCAA Regionals.
Junior Trey Sutton lead the team in almost every offensive category and earned NCBWA All-American honors as well as his third consecutive All-C-USA Selections. Ryan Belanger and Patrick Ezell was also recognized on the leagues All-C-USA teams. Freshman J.R.Ballinger earned All-C-USA Freshman Team honors.
Two Golden Eagles were taken in the Major League Baseball amateur Draft, David Clark was taken in the 13th round by the Angels and Tyler Conn in the 36th round by the Diamondbacks. Both players declined their contract offer to return for the 2008 season.
In 2006, he guided the Golden Eagles to a 39-23 overall record, several weeks in the national rankings, a 13-11 record in the always-tough Conference USA, which tied for fourth place, and a school-record fourth-straight trip to the NCAA postseason. Palmer and company did so with a number of new faces - both in the lineup and in the pitching rotation - that were instrumental in helping Southern Miss continue to build that winning tradition.
Maddox and Daniel Best were named to the C-USA All-Conference team and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers' Association's All-American team, the fourth year in a row that Southern Miss has had an All-American selection. Kevin Coker, Toddric Johnson and Trey Sutton were named to the All-CUSA team as well. Luke Adkins, Brian Dozier and Michael Ewing were named to the Louisville Slugger/Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American team, marking the fifth-straight year a Golden Eagle has appeared on that team.
Four players were taken in Major League Baseball's amateur draft, Maddox in the ninth round and Best in the 14th round by Kansas City, Johnson in the 14th round by Oakland and Scott Massey in the 24th round by Pittsburgh.
The 2005 season saw Southern Miss finish with a 41-21 record - including a second-place finish in the C-USA standings and earned the program's sixth NCAA Tournament appearance.
The three-straight 40-win seasons, the three-straight NCAA Tournament appearances and the three-straight 20-win seasons in Conference USA play all set school records.
While the success of the 2005 season stands on its own merit, what may have gone unnoticed is how good a coaching job Palmer and his staff really did. Southern Miss entered the season with several question marks, primarily due to the loss of four All-Americans - second baseman Jarrett Hoffpauir, shortstop Matt Shepherd, outfielder Ryan Frith and closer Austin Tubb - after 2004 and the loss of the ace of the pitching staff, Cliff Russum, just prior to the season. To make matters worse, the Golden Eagle pitching rotation had to endure some in-season changes when ace starter Mike Cashion's season was cut short due to Tommy John surgery. Throw into the mix four fresh-faced position starters, and a successful run wasn't exactly a given.
Catcher Brad Willcutt was named to the Louisville Slugger/Collegiate Baseball and the NCBWA's All-America teams and was drafted in the 27th round by Milwaukee. Relief pitcher Daniel Best also was named to the NCBWA's All-American team and was a finalist for the Stopper of the Year Award. Second baseman Trey Sutton was named to the Louisville Slugger/Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-America team.
In 2004, Southern Miss made its second-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, playing in the Baton Rouge Regional and posted an overall record of 45-19 and 21-9 in Conference USA, its second-straight 40-plus win season. The Golden Eagles finished in a tie for second place in Conference USA in the regular season and was the tournament runner-up.
During the season, Southern Miss defeated Ole Miss three times, a team ranked in the top 10 each time they played and earned wins during the season over top programs such as Tulane, Houston, East Carolina, Oklahoma State, TCU and the College of Charleston.
Southern Miss was nationally ranked for 15 weeks during the season and reached as high as No. 11, setting a school record. Frith, Hoffpauir, Shepherd and Tubb all earned All-American honors, Anthony DeWitt was named all-conference and Patrick Ezell earned Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American honors. Ezell and Mike Cashion were named the C-USA All-Freshman Team. Tubb earned CoSIDA Academic All-American honors, the second year that a Golden Eagle was named to the prestigious academic list.
Five players were taken in the Major League Baseball draft, tying the 1990 team for the most players drafted in a year. Hoffpauir was selected in the sixth round, Shepherd in the eighth, Frith in the 17th, Tubb in 32nd and DeWitt in the 36th round.
In 2003, Southern Miss captured its first-ever Conference USA regular-season and tournament championships. The team not only was rewarded with one of the automatic bids to the NCAA regional tournament, but also was one of only 16 schools in the country picked to host a regional tournament.
Finishing with a 47-16 overall record and a 23-7 mark in league play, Southern Miss set the school record for most wins in a season, set the Conference USA mark for most league wins in a season and was ranked a then school-best No. 12 by Baseball America and finished the year ranked in the top 15.
Three players were selected for All-American honors with Jeff Cook also being named the Conference USA Scholar Athlete of the Year, and Clint King being named an ESPN The Magazine Academic All-American third-team selection. Five players garnered all-conference honors, and Maddox was named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team. Three players were drafted in the top five rounds of the Major League Baseball draft for the first time in the school's history.
For his efforts, Palmer was named the Keith LeClair/Conference USA Coach of the Year as well as the ABCA/Diamond Sports Company South Region Coach of the Year.
In 2002, Palmer guided a young squad to a fourth-place finish in Conference USA, one of the top five baseball conferences in the nation. Even though the Golden Eagles missed out on their goal of earning a spot in an NCAA regional tournament that season, several players were recognized for their outstanding performances.
Three players earned First-Team All-Conference USA honors, one was named to the second team and four were selected to the all-freshman team. Cook and Shea Douglas earned spots on the All-South Region team and four of the freshmen, Hoffpauir, Russum, Shepherd and Willcutt, were named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team. Douglas was the second player in as many years to get drafted, when the Cleveland Indians selected him in the 31st round of the Major League Baseball draft.
Hattiesburg baseball fans have never doubted Palmer's abilities, as a player or as a coach. While his coaching career has not been limited just to the Hattiesburg area, the name Carlton Devan "Corky" Palmer is irrevocably linked with the Hub City, and in particular, baseball in the Hub City.
A Hattiesburg native, Palmer started with a successful playing career at Hattiesburg High School that earned him three letters. He then enhanced his reputation as a player with a four-year stint as a catcher for legendary Golden Eagle coach Pete Taylor at Southern Miss, where he was the starting catcher his final three seasons. As a team captain his senior season, Palmer began paving the way for an eventual career in coaching.
With his undergraduate degree in athletic administration and coaching in hand, Palmer took his talents to the high school ranks, where at Columbus' Lee High School and Columbia High, his teams consistently won conference titles and were in the state playoffs. In his six years at the high school level, his teams posted an impressive 102-52 record.
The following two seasons were spent at Southern Miss as an assistant coach for the 1985 and 1986 seasons, and then it was on to Meridian Community College, where, in 10 seasons, his teams posted a 409-160 record, earned five Mississippi-Louisiana Conference titles, four district and regional championships, three trips to the Junior College World Series, and, in 1996, advanced all the way to the title game. Six of Palmer's 10 Meridian Community College teams won 40 or more games.
His successes at Meridian earned him four Region 23 Coach-of-the-Year awards, and he twice was named NJCAA Division One Diamond Sports/ American Baseball Coaches Association Coach of the Year.
Then-Golden Eagle Head Coach Hill Denson lured Palmer away from Meridian CC for an assistant's role for the 1997 season, and, on Denson's retirement following the 1997 season, the search for a new coach went no further than Palmer, who on June 4, 1997, was introduced as Southern Miss' 12th head baseball coach, a position he accepted with relish.
Entering his first season at Southern Miss, Palmer found himself facing a challenging situation. Injuries, defections and a grueling schedule faced the first-year coach. After ironing out some of the kinks, Palmer still had the ability to guide his team to a 30-28 record, keeping intact a 13-year streak of Southern Miss seasons with at least 30 victories.
But it was 1999 that left Golden Eagle fans eagerly anticipating the future. For the first time in eight seasons, Palmer guided the Golden Eagles to a 40-win season and into the second round of the NCAA Sub-Regional Tournament. That team also produced a new record for home victories, 27-3 at Pete Taylor Park, and finished the year with a 40-23 record.
That 1999 season saw Palmer produce two All-Conference USA First-Team selections in Michael Artman and Dusty Haley. The 80 double plays the Eagles turned that season was the highest total in school history, as was the number of assists (780). Under Palmer's guidance, Southern Miss established a record for the highest home winning percentage (.900) in a season, the third most victories (40) in a season and the second-best winning percentage since 1966.
The injury bug caused more problems in 2000. Several of the top players were hit hard and were forced to miss time or sit out the entire season. The Golden Eagles posted a 32-26 record, pushing the streak of 30-plus victory seasons to 14.
His 2001 team, while finishing at 27-32, gave fans plenty of reason for optimism as it took a four-game win streak into postseason play, and then proceeded to go four games deep into the Conference USA Tournament before being eliminated. After beating Houston and USF, the Golden Eagles dropped a pair of hard-fought games to eventual tournament runner-up USF.
While producing those early successes, Palmer also was working tirelessly to add what he considered the final piece of the puzzle; and, toward that end, construction started in late 2000 on the Golden Eagle Baseball Clubhouse at Pete Taylor Park.
That facility, the Rogers, Thames and Welch Baseball Center, houses coaches' offices, the home dressing room, a training facility and a players' lounge, along with other amenities that have allowed Palmer's program to significantly increase its recruiting ability, and thus move the Southern Miss program to a consistently higher level that will permit his team to compete yearly for C-USA titles, as well as NCAA Tournament berths.
Now, the program is taking a step further in the facility arena with completed construction of 12 luxury suites and a new press box, further enhancing the overall experience that is "The Pete".
Palmer's domination has been such that his team's record is a winning one against 53 of the 72 teams that have appeared on the Golden Eagle schedule in Palmer's tenure. He is even with another six teams, and has a losing record against only 13 schools.
In Conference USA, the record book shows Southern Miss with a winning record against five of the other wight teams in the league, and losing marks only to Houston, Rice and Tulane. The Golden Eagle record against the other six schools stands at 71-33 (.683).
Those who might doubt Palmer's vision obviously are not aware of his history with the sport, a history that gives him a keen appreciation of the game itself, along with the necessary desire and ability to be successful at every level of the game. Those who are aware of his background and successes know that the Southern Miss baseball program remains in good hands and on a solid foundation that will produce even more outstanding results in the years ahead.
In 1998, Palmer received his highest Golden Eagle honor when he was elected to the Southern Miss M Club Sports Hall of Fame. Then, this past fall, Palmer received the highest honor that could ever be bestowed upon a Southern Miss alumnus, as he was inducted into the Southern Miss Alumni Association's Hall of Fame. And it was the latter honor that gives Palmer the greatest joy.
"It was a great honor and the highest honor you can receive here as a graduate of Southern Miss," Palmer said. "It was special, and I went in with some very distinguished alumni. I'm honored that the school selected me."
Palmer and his wife, Debbie, have been married for 32 years and reside in the Hattiesburg area. Debbie is a Southern Miss graduate with a degree in nursing.