Southern Miss featured a variety of new faces in the shortened 2020 season. However, the Golden Eagles still have several questions that were never answered and carried over into the upcoming season.
The Golden Eagles had a young team in 2020, and the team was looking for answers. Unlike last season, Southern Miss will turn to several talented junior college players as well as another highly touted freshman group.
Several Southern Miss true freshmen through the years have created a stir as Wilks competes for the job in right field. Yet, Slade Wilks has created a high bar for himself. The power hitter has drawn comparisons to former All-American sluggers Matt Wallner and Taylor Braley.
“His fall started off like any normal freshman’s fall,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “As we have gotten further into it, his game started to develop. You could see him start to mature as a hitter and also as a defensive player in the outfield.”
The 6-foot-2 Columbia Academy graduate recorded a .418 average, 50 home runs and 150 RBI in his high school career. Perfect Game rated Wilks as the 23rd best high school
player in the nation and eighth-best outfielder in the country. Several MLB mock drafts saw Wilks considered as high as a fourth-round draft pick.
“Anytime you come from the high school level to the college, particularly the Division I level, the game moves really quick,” Berry said. “I’m not just talking about velocity on the mound but just the game itself. Sometimes the biggest adjustment is the ability to slow the game down. Slade is no different, but I think he has the makeup mentally to do that. He has an outstanding awareness of the strike zone. He showed us that in the fall as he continued to get better. He is a very tough out. (Pitching coach Christian Ostrander) said that he was one of the toughest guys to pitch to during the fall.”
Wilks was also named as the Preseason C-USA Freshman of the Year by PerfectGame and D1baseball.com.
Sargent has created a significant stir amongst the coaches as he undoubtedly won the job at first base, and
takes over after McGillis moved to second base. Sargent will have big shoes to fill, as the previous three first basemen were some of the most productive players, which included Hunter Slater, Dylan Burdeaux and Tim Lynch.
“One guy that has really anchored himself (in the middle of the lineup) is Chris Sargent,” Berry said. “He’ll be our first baseman and he could see some time behind the plate. He is a right-handed power hitter in the middle of the lineup. Last year, we were kind of searching for that in our offense. Sarge has really shown up and has played well.”
The Coastal Alabama CC transfer batted .242 and recorded four doubles, four home runs and 12 RBI in last year’s shortened season. As a freshman, he was named the ACCC South Division Player of the Year as he batted .401, 16 doubles, 11 home runs and 53 RBI.
Southern Miss has depended on the two-catcher system for the last several seasons. The graduation of Cole Donaldson and the transfer of Bryant Bowen left Southern Miss in need of catchers heading into the 2020 season.
The Golden Eagles snapped up Arkansas transfer Andrew Stanley, who batted .310, and held the job down defensively. Southern Miss also brought in Brian Davis, who opted to transfer after his lone season in Hattiesburg.
“(Stanley) and Blake complement each other well both offensively and defensively,” Berry said. “Those guys will split some time.”
Blake Johnson, who was originally signed with Tulane, comes to Southern Miss after spending two seasons at Jones College. Johnson was a two-year starter and actually pitched and played multiple positions for the Bobcats in 2019. However, in 2020 Johnson stayed behind the plate as he threw out five runners in six steal attempts. As a hitter, Johnson batted .273 with two doubles, one home run and 13 RBI.
Pearl River CC transfer Reece Ewing was teammates with Sargent and Gabe Shepard at Faith Academy. Ewing is another outfielder that is considered to be in the mix for right field.
Ewing could also compete for the job in right field; however, his bat could earn playing time before his glove. With Charlie Fischer recovering from an injury and likely missing the opening weekend, the coaching staff can experiment with the designated hitter spot. Berry has said that Ewing would fit well in the middle of the lineup.
At PRCC, Ewing was also a two-year starter. Last season, Ewing batted .386 with two doubles, three home runs and 13 RBI. As a freshman, he hit .300, 12 doubles, 11 home runs and 49 RBI.