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View from the 'ville
Friday, May 22, 2009

By Al Myatt

Southern Miss is on a mission

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

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 down.

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 tourney opener.

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 bats."

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 turf.

"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 Giannini.

"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.

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05/22/2009 03:25:40 AM


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