(Photo: USM SID)
East Carolina and the rest of the
Conference USA baseball tournament field ventured into a difficult
environment this week. Southern Miss would certainly be the sentimental
favorite to win the event at its own Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg.
That's because Coach Corky Palmer of
the Golden Eagles announced his retirement effective at the end of the
season several weeks ago in the midst of a successful 12-year stint, and
his club would like to send him out with a championship.
"I've got the energy to do some things,
but this is a tough job; it's only going to get tougher, and I thought
it was time to do something else," Palmer said when he announced his
plans on April 30. "I'd like to thank Mr. (Richard) Giannini (athletic
director) for letting me stay on with Southern Miss. I love this
university and everything that goes with it."
The Golden Eagles were coming off of a
6-4 win over No. 7 Ole Miss when Palmer made public his plans to step
The situation parallels to a degree the
circumstances of ECU's run to the league tournament title as the host
team in Kinston in 2002. Coach Keith LeClair had removed himself from an
active role in directing the program during the season because of his
battle with Lou Gehrig's Disease. The Pirates were on a mission to win
the tournament in his honor.
LeClair watched from a blue van parked
in foul territory adjacent to right field as ECU shut out Houston 4-0 in
the championship game at Grainger Stadium. The players gave the van a
Gatorade dowsing in the aftermath.
Palmer doesn't have a terminal illness
but he does stir some deep emotions at his alma mater.
The Golden Eagles served early notice
in the C-USA tourney that they are bent on providing a memorable
farewell for their longtime coach. Palmer was presented a new sports
utility vehicle by donors and the university before Southern Miss went
out and pounded Tulane 15-2 in eight innings on Wednesday night in USM's
It was USM's largest margin of victory
over Tulane in a conference tournament game and the Green Wave's worst
conference tournament loss in 28 years.
"What a night for Corky," said Tulane
coach Rick Jones. "They beat us like this and he gets a new car. They
really took it to us. We never got out of the gate and they swung the
Tulane senior right-hander Jonathan
Garrett (5-4) didn't make it out of the first inning, as USM rocked him
for four runs — three earned — on four hits and a walk.
Earlier this season Garrett had a
complete game against the Golden Eagles, holding them to two runs on
five hits, with 13 strikeouts and only one walk.
"We came out ready to play," Palmer
said of the C-USA tourney opener. "I thought we had as much fire as
we've had all year. The crowd was tremendous."
A 40-minute rain delay thinned the
crowd on Thursday night and ECU sophomore right-hander Seth Maness, who
came into the game with a 9-0 record, kept the Golden Eagles off the
scoreboard until a two-run homer with two out in the bottom of the
seventh by freshman shortstop B.A. Vollmuth tied the score.
USM added three more runs in the eighth
on designated hitter Corey Steven's sacrifice fly and first baseman Joey
Archer's two-run single
for a 5-2 win.
Palmer is doing his best to deflect the
notion that the Golden Eagles are motivated by his departure from the
baseball program's leadership.
"I told them a long time ago, this
ain't about me," Palmer said. "This is about (seniors) Bo Davis, James
and Mike Ewing, Brian Dozier. It's about them. It's not about me. They
want to keep doing it, and we've got a lot of work left to do. Let's see
if we can get it done."
J.R. Ballinger stepped up for USM and
matched Maness on the mound on Thursday night.
"Ballinger kept us in the game," Palmer
said. "In college baseball, nine innings is a long time to cover. He
gave us a chance, and as long as he kept us in there, it gave us a
chance. I told him when I took him out, `Hey buddy, maybe we can let you
pitch again next week.' "
ECU took a 2-0 lead, with first baseman
Brandon Henderson driving in runs in the first and third innings.
But with two outs in the seventh
inning, Maness issued a walk and Vollmuth, who came into the evening
hitting .226, drove his third home run of the season over the
right-field fence to knot the score.
"It was a fastball that he left a
little bit up," said Vollmuth, who became a starter after Dozier broke
his collarbone in mid-April.
ECU proved itself as the best team in
the league over the long haul of the regular season, but it's difficult
to offset the factors of emotion and motivation on an underdog's home
"You have to tip your hat to Southern
Miss," ECU coach Billy Godwin said. "It was two well-pitched games. We
just came up short."
The Pirates face Tulane at 1:30 p.m.
today and the winner of that game will have to beat Southern Miss twice
to get to the tournament championship game at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
The schedule for the event has been
adjusted because of the threat of more rain. The ECU-Tulane winner will
face the host Golden Eagles at 8:30 p.m. tonight and if USM loses that
game, the bracket final is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Palmer will continue to work with the
USM athletic department as a fund-raiser for projects assigned by
"I want to be the first to congratulate
Corky on his retirement and compliment him on the outstanding record he
has complied as the head coach of Southern Miss baseball for the past 12
years," Giannini said. "Corky will go down in the record books as one of
the most successful coaches in any sport at Southern Miss. More
importantly, is the quality, integrity and character of this man.
"He has been a great mentor and friend
to countless student-athletes, assistant baseball coaches, other sports
coaches and administrative staff members."
Palmer has a 452-277 record as Southern
Miss head coach. He has led the Golden Eagles to seven NCAA tournament
appearances including a current streak of six straight berths. His win
total at the school ranks second-best on USM's all-time victory chart.
Conference USA athletic web sites contributed to this column.