Southern Miss baseball coach Scott Berry leaving a legacy in Hattiesburg

Published 5:00 pm Thursday, June 1, 2023

With the NCAA Tournament beginning on Friday for the University of Southern Mississippi at Auburn, the career of Golden Eagles head coach Scott Berry is drawing to a close.

Berry announced earlier this season that the 2023 campaign would be his last in Hattiesburg, as the Missouri native will retire as the all-time winningest coach in program history.

The fans of Southern Miss baseball are riding high after winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament on Sunday with a 6-2 win over the Louisiana Ragin Cajuns. The Eagles battled back after dropping their second game of the tournament 4-2 to Appalachian State.

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USM then beat App State 11-1 in a meeting later that same day, which put them in the finals against Louisiana.

The Sun Belt Conference has a strong baseball tradition and when the NCAA Tournament bids were handed out last weekend, the league got four teams selected in USM, Coastal Carolina, Troy and Louisiana.

Coastal Carolina finished first in the regular season race with a 23-7 league mark, just ahead of Southern Miss at 22-8.

One would think that Southern Miss had to be in the running for one of the national 16 seeds that allows a team to host the first round of regional play.

Alas, the committee put the Eagles on the road to play in a regional hosted by Auburn, the national no. 13 seed. Wake Forest (47-10) is the no. 1 national seed.

In the first round on Friday, Southern Miss (41-17) will take on Samford (36-23) at 1 p.m. The second game of the day will be top seeded Auburn (32-21-1) playing against Penn (32-14).

The 60-year-old Berry has coached USM for the last 14 seasons.

He took over an already proud tradition at the school and helped keep it among the best college baseball programs in the country. The crowds at Pete Taylor Park during that time can speak to the popularity of his teams.

Wesson native and former Copiah-Lincoln baseball coach Clay Smith is a Southern Miss guy. Smith graduated from the school and then became part of the baseball coaching staff as an assistant coach.

When legendary Southern Miss baseball coach Hill Denson ran the program at Belhaven University in Jackson, Smith was his right-hand man as his top assistant.

Smith worked on a staff with current Louisiana Tech head coach Lane Burroughs and Berry as assistants under former Southern Miss head coach Corky Palmer.

Palmer played at Southern Miss, was an assistant at the school earlier in his career and then went on to have a successful run as the head coach at Meridian Community College.

Berry was his assistant at Meridian and then took over when Palmer headed to be head coach in Hattiesburg.

In 2001, Berry first came to Hattiesburg as an assistant for Palmer.

So, what is it about Scott Berry that made him such a successful heir to the coaching lineage that was passed down from Pete Taylor to Hill Denson and then to Palmer?

“Coach Denson was the greatest program builder I’ve ever seen, Coach Palmer was the greatest in-game coach I’ve ever seen, and Coach Berry is the most organized, details-oriented practice coach I’ve ever seen,” said Smith. “He very rarely raises his voice, but when he does the guys know he means business. He’s extremely loyal and you can see how hard his teams play for him. He’s also not afraid to be completely honest with them, which I think his team respects.”

Another thing that Berry has done well throughout his career is to recruit players that fit the mold for Southern Miss baseball.

Stars on the 2023 team like outfielder Slade Wilks (Columbia Academy) and star freshman Nick Monistere (Northwest Rankin) grew up as fans of the program and pledged to the school despite being recruited by SEC schools.

The coaching staff also does a great job of focusing on Mississippi and the surrounding Gulf Coast area to mine talent that might need just a little extra development.

All-American pitcher Tanner Hall was lightly recruited early in his career at Zachary High outside of Baton Rouge.

As a junior in high school, Hall was throwing in the mid-80s on the mound. He was also a strong soccer player at the school and the Southern Miss coaching staff saw potential that they could develop in Hattiesburg when they inked him to a letter-of-intent.

Hall will likely be a high draft pick in the upcoming MLB amateur draft.

Brookhaven native Paxton King was one of the top left-handed pitchers in this part of the state as a senior for Brookhaven High in 2008.

He signed with Southern Miss when Berry was an assistant for Palmer and was a redshirt freshman on the 2009 team that made the NCAA College World Series for the first time in school history.

After that season, Palmer retired, and King went on to play four seasons under Berry.

“He’s a player’s coach for sure,” said King. “I just don’t think you’re going to find many guys at the Division I level of baseball that make the types of connections he makes with his players. He takes the time to get to know everyone in the program and he obviously cares about you as an individual. He’s always going to be honest with you and tell you what he thinks and not what you might want to hear.”

In 2010, King was on the first team that Berry led as head coach in Hattiesburg. That team struggled at times during the season and went into the Conference USA Tournament in Houston knowing the only way they could secure an NCAA Tournament bid would be to win the whole thing.

“The team had a streak going at that time of making the tournament and we didn’t want to end that streak and we didn’t want that to happen during Coach Berry’s first season either,” said King.

That week in Houston, the Golden Eagles beat Memphis, lost to East Carolina and then upset Houston and Rice on the way to winning the conference tournament.

One of King’s best friends is Southern Miss assistant coach Travis Creel. The pair played together all five years in Hattiesburg and were captains on the team as seniors.

King has also kept in tight contact with Berry over the years. His family’s dealership, Stan King GM Superstore in Brookhaven provides a courtesy vehicle to the Southern Miss Athletics Department every year.

The vehicle is always a truck that Berry gets to use as his own. Legendary car salesman Larry McFadden would always be the one that had the honor of driving the new vehicle to Berry once it came in.

“Larry Mac would always call him Scott, because to him, they were just a couple buddies,” said King.

McFadden passed away earlier this year after an illness. In 2022, when his health was better, Southern Miss hosted a first round NCAA regional that was one of the hottest tickets of that year.

Ole Miss was among the four teams playing Hattiesburg and people were losing their minds trying to get tickets to the weekend of games.

King says that his friends and family had ended up being one ticket short and McFadden had an easy solution as the first pitch was just 30 minutes away — he’d call Scott.

“Larry Mac gets out his phone and calls Coach Berry about 30 minutes before they are going to play,” said King. “Coach Berry answered and was like, what’s going on Larry. They chatted for a minute, and he told Larry how he could get another ticket. That’s Coach Berry summed up, when you’ve got his attention, you can know that there is no one more important to him in that moment than you — whether you’re a player on his team or the sales manager that brings him his new truck every year.”