June 6, 2014
HATTIESBURG, Miss. -
From Hattiesburg, it is 678 miles to Oklahoma City, Okla., the host site of the Women's College World Series. The trip is a long flight; a longer bus ride; and a seemingly impossible journey if you are walking. The University of Southern Mississippi softball team isn't walking to Oklahoma City, but after a 2014 season like the Golden Eagles had, the team is definitely taking steps in that direction.
Grouped with a team whose average age was roughly 19 years old, Southern Miss finished the season with the 22 wins - the most wins since 2010 - and 10 Conference USA wins - the most since 2009. Eighteen (18) of the 22 players on Southern Miss roster were underclassmen. Golden Eagles had just two juniors and two seniors.
The team played a daunting schedule against some of the top competition in the country. Southern Miss played 10 games against teams ranked in the Top 10 in the final regular season poll - No. 3 Arizona State (3 games), No. 4 Florida State (3x), No. 6 Alabama (1x), No. 9 Arizona (3x). The Golden Eagles hosted the eventual National Champion Runner-Up Alabama in front of the largest crowd in the Southern Miss Softball Complex history - a crowd of 902 people. In addition, Southern Miss played a total of 18 games against eight teams that advanced to the NCAA Regionals.
After a rugged nonconference schedule, the team notched the most Conference USA victories in the last five years. Southern Miss opened up Conference USA season with back-to-back series wins for the first time since 2006.
Throughout the season, the team accomplished several milestones offensively.
Despite the youth of the team, the offense improved its overall batting average 38 points, finishing the year with a team average of .251, up from .213 a year ago. The Golden Eagles tallied 81 extra base hits, including 55 doubles, 10 triples and 16 home runs, an increase from the previous season.
Sophomore Meaghen Nelson was named Conference USA Player of the Week on March 17, becoming the first Golden Eagle to win since Jill Mathis (2010-11) on Feb. 21, 2011 to earn the accolade. On the week, Nelson led the team with a .529 batting average, going 9-for-17 and helping Southern Miss to a 5-1 record on the week, including a C-USA series win against Middle Tennessee.
Just two weeks later on March 31, Mackenzie Sher was named C-USA Softball Player of the Week, giving Southern Miss two Players of the Week for the first time since 2006. It was the first time in the senior's career to earn POW accolades. On the week, Sher helped Southern Miss to a 4-1 record on the week, including a C-USA series win against UTSA. The Bellaire, Texas native led the team with a .714, going 10-for-14 with two doubles, two home runs, five runs scored and six RBI.
(NOTE: Southern Miss had multiple Pitcher of the Week honors in 2010)
Sher led team with eight home runs on the season. For her career, she had 22, which ranks fourth in school history. In addition, Sher's double vs. UAB gave her 10 on season - first time in her career with double-digit doubles in a season. Sher finished the year with a career-best 11 doubles.
Sophomore Sarah Evans tied school record with two triples in a game - twice. She accomplished the feat against Detroit and replicated the accomplishment versus Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Evans concluded the year with four triples, tying for sixth in a season. She was one triple shy of tying for first place for triples in a year.
Sophomore Katie Cleary tied school record with three doubles in a game against ULM at Texas Invitational in Austin, Texas. Cleary led the team with 14 doubles on the year. Her fourteen doubles was seven times as many as the sophomore had in her rookie campaign.
With a young team, stability was needed. Sophomore Morgan McKeever was one of four players on the team to play in every game during the season and one of just two players to start all 53 games. Despite being a sophomore, McKeever provided consistency and stability both defensively at shortstop and in the Golden Eagles' batting order.
Samantha Robles, who split time between the circle and the batters' box, provided some needed pop with the bat. The true freshman belted three home runs on the season, including a team-best two grand slams.
In the circle, Southern Miss continued to improve.
As a staff, three different pitchers threw no-hitters on the year. In addition, the pitching stable posted 18 consecutive shutout innings on two different occasions.
On Feb. 22, true freshman Danielle Block hurled a complete-game no-hitter against Detroit becoming the first Southern Miss player since Courtney Ramos (2009-12) tossed a no-hitter against Jackson State as a true freshman on Feb. 18, 2009. Just one day after Block's no-no, Shelbee Rodgers matched the feat working a hitless game against the Titans. Robles worked a no-hitter against Alcorn State less than a month later on March 21.
Rodgers led team with 168 strikeouts - the most by a Golden Eagle pitcher since Lacey Gros (2006) posted 190 Ks in 2006. Rodgers ranked fifth in a season in strikeouts (168) and tied for sixth in a season for wins (15) in Southern Miss history. With her win against UAPB, Rodgers became first pitcher since Beth Dietrich (2010-13) in 2011 to record double-digit wins in a season.
Off the field, the Golden Eagles also shined.
Thirteen softball student-athletes were named to the 2013-14 Conference USA Commissioner's Honor Roll for maintaining a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or better. Sher, who received Southern Miss Outstanding Female Individual GPA Award, was named C-USA Academic All-Conference team; while Block was a finalist for Southern Miss' Freshman Female of the Year and was recognized during the Founders' Day Celebration.
The road to the Women's College World Series is long and has many pitfalls along the way. Over the last season, Southern Miss traveled 16,430 total miles - 6,700 by plane; 9,730 by bus - but, more important than the miles, Southern Miss took important steps towards reaching Oklahoma City.