For the third time in program history, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles baseball team will host an NCAA Regional at Pete Taylor Park as the No. 11 overall seed in a 64-team tournament. With their first game right around the corner this Friday, the Golden Eagles had little time to celebrate before getting right back to work.
Helping lead the way for the Golden Eagles this season has been surging sophomore slugger Slade Wilks, a former Columbia Academy Cougar who's made quite the habit of coming through at the plate during big moments. He boasts a .293 batting average, the second highest on the team this spring, with 16 doubles, 35 RBI and 10 home runs. Wilks' tenth moonshot was hit May 25, a fifth-inning dinger that proved to be the winning run, lifting the Golden Eagles over UAB in the Conference USA Tournament.
Blasting home runs is nothing new to Wilks, who totaled 50 during his high school career at CA, but that success did not transitionally immediately to the next level. After batting .158 with 8 RBI and two home runs as a freshman, Wilks said a huge part of his success as a sophomore has to be credited to the work he put in over the summer with hitting coach Travis Creel in the New England Collegiate League.
“There’s no doubt I’ve definitely grown,” Wilks said. “I went through some growing pains as a freshman. Just kind of went off this summer and refreshed my mind. I've just played the game I’ve always played. Everything seemed to slow down for me a little bit this year. It’s just been a big jump.”
The improvement hasn't gone unnoticed, neither by fans nor by head coach Scott Berry, who is excited to see what his team can accomplish this postseason with big bats like Wilks' leading the way.
“Certain things have had to happen with his swing to shorten up,” Berry said. “He’s got power, but power doesn’t equate to hitting velocity, and you have to be able to shorten some things up. There has to be some timing that has to be adjusted in order to improve.
"And he’s still improving. He’s not where he wants to be, he’s not where I want him to be. But he’s still improving. That young man has tremendous upside and potential."
This weekend at the Hattiesburg Regional, Southern Miss will play host to LSU, Kennesaw State and Army. The Golden Eagles will take the field at 1 p.m. Friday to take on Army in the first Regional game at Pete Taylor Park since 2017. Despite having struggled down the backstretch of the regular season after a 15-game winning streak that once propelled them to a No. 5 national ranking, Berry said it'd be unwise to count his team out.
“We’re a bunch of good guys that go out and play and believe in one another and never feel like we’re out of the game,” Berry said. “It's all about staying focused, staying hungry and staying humble. Everything that’s going on around us can be a distraction if we let it, but if we just stay focused on the process and the next game, we’ll be fine."