Paul Boyd is a sports reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was voted Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2018.
Fayetteville native looking for different finish in return to Baum Stadium
SOUTHERN MISS ATHLETICS Fayetteville native Walker Powell returns home with Southern Mississippi to play in the Fayetteville Regional, which begins Friday at Baum Stadium. The Golden Eagles will face Dallas Baptist in a first-round matchup slated for a 7 p.m. start.
Walker Powell hasn't forgotten his last baseball game at Baum Stadium, but he will be looking for a different outcome when he returns with Southern Mississippi this weekend in the Fayetteville Regional.
The 6-foot-7 Powell vividly recalls watching Bryant celebrate winning a state title over the Fayetteville Purple Bulldogs in May 2014.
"That left a little bitter taste," Powell said.
The Fayetteville native hopes to be the one celebrating with his Golden Eagles teammates by the end of this weekend and advancing to an NCAA Super Regional.
The Golden Eagles (43-16) won the Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles and earned the No. 2 seed in the regional. They will take on No. 3 seed Dallas Baptist (40-19) at 7 p.m. Friday. Arkansas, the top seed, will take on Oral Roberts in the first game at 2 p.m.
Southern Mississippi is no stranger to a big moment or big atmosphere, Powell said. But he acknowledged it will be special for him to return home.
"It's awesome for me personally being from there and having played ball at Fayetteville High," Powell said. "I think we're ready for it and I'm excited."
School Southern Mississippi
Weight 191 pounds
Notable Currently 7-2 with a 3.53 ERA over 79 innings with 58 strikeouts and 14 walks. … Missed all of last season after undergoing his second Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar colateral ligament in his right elbow. … Was a three-year letterman at Fayetteville High School, but played in only 14 games and did not pitch at all his senior year while still recovering from his first Tommy John surgery. … Went 4-3 with a 3.43 ERA in 39 innings as a freshman at Southern Mississippi
Powell has been effective as the Golden Eagles' No. 3 starter much of the season, going 7-2 with a 3.53 ERA in 79 innings, but that's only a small part of his story. He's returning from his second Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
The big right-hander missed all of last season with the same injury he suffered in high school.
Familiarity with the procedure and the rehab didn't make the process any easier a second time, Powell said.
"I'm not gonna lie to you and say it wasn't tough," said Powell, who went 4-3 with a 3.46 ERA in 39 innings as a freshman. "It was a lot of work, rehab and training to get back to where I was."
He worked hard to strengthen all parts of his body, particularly his legs in order to try to make sure the injury didn't happen again, but coaches added another component. They also altered the mechanics of his delivery to attempt to take the strain off his elbow.
"It's a challenge when you've done something one way your whole life and you try to change it," Southern Mississippi coach Scott Berry said. "But he's acquired a little more action on his ball and we created a little more deception with the arm adjustment we made."
Powell has made strides on the mound mentally as much as he has evolved physically to come back from a second devastating injury, Berry said.
"That's a tough emotional swing for an athlete to endure one, but to have a second one and mentally be able to overcome that, you have to tip your hat to a person who's able to come back from that," Berry said.
"But I think his ability to go out there on days where he doesn't have his best stuff is where I've seen Walker grow the most. The frustration is not as present when he doesn't have the good breaking ball or his fastball command is not what he would like for it to be."
Powell has done exactly what coaches thought he would, fitting nicely into a weekend starter spot after building up his arm strength early in the season, Berry said.
"He has contributed heavily to what we've been able to do," Berry said. "It's really been crucial for him to step up since we lost a potential starter to a labrum injury and made the decision to move an All-American closer into a starting role."
Berry knows something about Arkansas baseball, too, growing up in nearby Neosho, Mo., so he's no stranger to Baum Stadium either. But Powell, who will likely start the Golden Eagles' third game of the weekend, can't wait for the chance to pitch in front of lots of family and friends this weekend and face an Arkansas Razorbacks team he watched as a youngster.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say I was anxious to get up there and it's definitely gonna be fun," Powell said. "To have a chance to beat them on their home field. I feel good about it and I like our chances."
Sports on 05/31/2018
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