May 30, 2017 10:46:32 PM
Many people can recall various road trips from their lives.
Bonding with friends, seeing new places, eating fancy meals and barreling down the road looking for a gas station when near empty have all been experienced by each of us.
During an eight-year association with the Hattiesburg American, your faithful scribe covered several sporting events involving the University of Southern Mississippi.
Fellow writer Tim Doherty was the beat writer for the university. However, when Tim ran out of hours for a particular week, that meant a baseball, softball or women's basketball assignment was headed my way.
In 1996, Tim's wife had a child and he had to take some time away from work. That stretch opened the door for me to cover the 1996 Metro Conference baseball tournament.
It was the final year of the Metro Conference and Southern Miss breezed through the tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Plane and rental car reservations were made with a couple of weeks left in the regular season. Southern Miss had to win one game the final weekend to secure a first-round bye.
Sure enough, the Golden Eagles lost all three games and free fell to the fifth seed and the first game on Wednesday.
My plane was schedule to land 20 minutes before first pitch. Granted, this was my first time in Charlotte and everything had to fall perfectly for my coverage of the first game.
The flight went smoothly and with a hurried pace, the rental counter was found.
The lady at the counter had no compact cars available and so yes, I was handed the keys to a 17-passenger van.
The race was then on to the find the Charlotte campus. Credentialed and in my seat by the fourth inning was a modern-day miracle.
This would be quire the start of some adventure.
I had met then-Southern Miss coach Hill Denson in 1990, my freshman year at Mississippi State. As a student-manager with coach Ron Polk and the MSU baseball program, my tasks included picking up the uniforms of the opposing team, getting them washed and returning them to the hotel. On another day, we will discuss the night I was locked in the laundromat with the North Alabama coach.
Through dealing with Southern Miss, I grew a quick appreciation for Denson, who is now the coach at Belhaven. He knew baseball but also had that dry sense of humor and joking nature that just made him a fun person to know.
So my friendship with the head coach grew during my time with the Hattiesburg paper. Denson would always ask me about my Bullies. He also knew to reach out to me to keep tabs on some of the better high school players in the area. It's always good to recruit your backyard.
In Charlotte, our bonding intensified. The Golden Eagles played the early game of the day in every round of the tournament. That meant all of my stories were submitted by around 3 in the afternoon and the newspaper's debit card and I had the nights together.
On that first night, the hotel phone rang. Denson asked me to take the team to dinner.
Though an odd request, I certainly had the room. With a little creativity we could fit 21 players in the van. The remaining players and the coaching staff fit nicely into a rental car which trailed the passenger van.
This night would repeat itself as the team took in a movie one night and an arena football game the next night.
If this trip served as any indication, it appeared that USM had a good time on the road.
Seven baseball seasons were spent covering games at Taylor Park. The place felt like a second home. Everyone knew me and not a game went by where a fan or two stopped to ask me the MSU score from that day.
This upcoming weekend, MSU and Southern Miss potentially renew the rivalry in the Hattiesburg Regional. Former MSU coach John Cohen wanted a one-game arrangement with Southern Miss (in Pearl) each season. Thus, the teams have not played in Hattiesburg since 2010. The teams last played a regional game against one another in 2011.
MSU will need to beat South Alabama and USM will need to beat Illinois-Chicago Friday to set up a head-to-head matchup on Saturday.
It should be an outstanding atmosphere for baseball this weekend. Denson will not be there to throw a bucket of balls on the field after an ejection like he did once upon a time. Polk will not be around for a long walk down the left field foul line with cigar in hand to exit behind the outfield wall of Taylor Park after an ejection.
Instead, Scott Berry and Andy Cannizaro will match wits. Both teams can score runs. The homesteading Golden Eagles have the advantage on the mound.
The compact car is full of gas and ready to go. Hopefully, the arrival time will be before first pitch.
It has been 21 years but Charlotte sure was fun that weekend. Hopefully, Hattiesburg will be the same this weekend.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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