D’Iberville’s Dylan Hardy has come a long way in a short time.
A year ago, the former Warrior was still getting acclimated to both college baseball and playing in the outfield for South Alabama. The transition — where he was essentially learning on the fly as a freshman — showed as he hit just .211 and struggled at times in the outfield.
When USA (39-19) was announced Monday as part of the Hattiesburg Regional, the former Coast standout even got a shoutout on ESPN2.
“Dylan Hardy and company,” host Matt Schick said.
In a way, the brief recognition on the nationally televised broadcast summed up exactly how far Hardy has come.
Hardy hasn’t just been one of the best Jaguars in 2017, he’s been one of the best players in his conference, earning a spot on the Sun Belt’s second team.
Entering this weekend’s regional, Hardy is hitting .358 with 16 extra-base hits, 28 RBIs, 51 runs scored and 18 stolen bases.
“I’ve worked my butt off in the cages. I’d come over here to Mobile during Christmas break almost four days a week and hit. I just think it’s a lot of hard work paying off,” Hardy said. “I knew I could do it, but it’s an unreal experience. It’s kind of surreal to live out my dream and do well. It has been an unforgettable experience.”
Jogging instead of sprinting
Even with the improved numbers, Hardy never dreamed he’d have the kind of power surge he displayed last week at the Sun Belt Tournament in Statesboro, Georgia.
In USA’s 9-1 opening win over Troy, Hardy belted two homers and added a double with four RBIs. After a 1-for-6 performance in the Jaguars’ 4-2 win over Arkansas State, Hardy delivered another homer in the team’s 7-6 championship win over host Georgia Southern.
For perspective: Hardy was homerless as a freshman and only hit one home run in the team’s first 55 games of this season.
“I don’t think I changed anything in my swing. I was just worried about getting the right pitches and getting good swings on them,” Hardy said. “Got them up in the air and the wind was blowing a little bit so they got out. It was crazy.
“I’ve never jogged around the bases that much in my life. It was definitely nice not having to sprint 90 feet.”
The championship game in Statesboro was a wild one with multiple lead changes before the Jaguars ultimately won in the 10th inning.
Hardy worked a one-out walk, went first-to-third on a single and then easily scored the walk-off run on a Brendan Donovan single to the outfield.
Hardy called it the craziest game he’s ever played.
“It was unforgettable. I think I blacked out for a second,” Hardy said. “Once the ball hit the bat I knew we were going to score. I think I was dodging everybody trying to get to home plate because our team was running out onto the field already.”
Three-seed South Alabama is pretty familiar with two of the three opponents that make up the Hattiesburg Regional. USA went 1-2 against two-seed Mississippi State this year and dropped both games against Southern Miss. Although the Jags went 1-4 against the Bulldogs and Golden Eagles, Hardy said he was excited when South Alabama’s name popped up on ESPN2 — even if he didn’t hear his name.
With the close proximity between USA and USM, Hardy said it’ll practically feel like a home series — although the droves of excited Golden Eagle fans may have something to say about that.
“They’re both great ball clubs and we’re familiar with each other. It’s going to be fun. Really fun,” Hardy said. “I’ve played summer ball with a lot of those guys on Southern Miss and Mississippi State. It’ll be a blast.”
USA will face the Bulldogs at 6 p.m. Friday. Host USM will play four-seed Illinois-Chicago at 1 p.m.
Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs