Time for another strong spring

dshirley@macon.comFebruary 14, 2014 

MercerUGA

Mercer head coach Craig Gibson congratulates Joe Winker after his two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning of their game against Georgia Tuesday night.

JASON VORHEES — jvorhees@macon.com

The Mercer athletics department has had a strong first half of the 2013-14 school year.

The football team had a remarkable first season. The men’s basketball team is in first place in the A-Sun and looks like a good bet to break down the A-Sun tournament and NCAA tournament doors in front of it. And there have been many good performances from other teams throughout the year.

But it’s time to turn the focus -- or at least some of it with the basketball team still rolling along -- to Mercer’s most consistent winning program: Craig Gibson’s baseball team.

The Bears’ season was set to open Friday afternoon, but the opener was pushed back a day because High Point’s team had travel issues getting to Middle Georgia. That just delayed for one day what is going to be another terrific season for Gibson’s team.

Coming off an NCAA tournament berth, Gibson’s group certainly lost some good players, but there are so many coming back that it’s hard to list them all. Leading the way will be first baseman/designated hitter Nick Backlund and third baseman Chesny Young -- a talented duo at the top of a talented roster (the Bears had five players named to the preseason All-A-Sun team).

But that’s not a surprise as Gibson and recruiting coordinator Brent Shade have done a terrific job in recent years restocking the talent in the program. And all that talent has led to a ton of wins the past few seasons.

There’s no reason to believe that will stop this season. The Bears were picked as heavy favorites to win the A-Sun title in their final season in the conference before they move to the Southern Conference.

In short, Gibson’s program has everything in place to be a powerhouse even outside of its conference ... except for one thing. It has the right coach and plenty of good players. The only piece of the puzzle it’s missing is the facility it plays in.

Claude Smith Field has a fine field; the playing surface is as good as any around. But what’s surrounding it is lacking, especially for a program as good Gibson’s.

Last summer, my sons and I went to a scrimmage for the football team at Mercer University Stadium, and one of them said, “Dad, look how nice this stadium is, and Hawkins Arena is really nice, too. Why doesn’t the baseball team have a nicer stadium?”

I didn’t really have an answer. There have been talks about improving the baseball’s facility, but there hasn’t been any real movement just yet. You’d certainly think that is coming down the line because it just has to at some point. Right?

It’s hard for colleges to find money for facilities, and there is only so much money to go around. Athletics director Jim Cole’s hands have been tied a little bit. After all, Hawkins Arena was necessary when it was built, and if you have been to Porter Gym you understand why, and Mercer University Stadium was necessary because the football team needed a quality home to open its program. But you almost wonder if the baseball team has been penalized for its own success. Is it really necessary for a team to have a better facility if it’s already this good?

Well, yes. And it’s time to make that happen. Look what Gibson’s program has accomplished with the facilities in place. Imagine what would happen with improvements to the park the Bears call home.

But really, you don’t have to imagine. Just look around at Hawkins Arena and Mercer University Stadium, two of the nicest college stadiums around. Bob Hoffman has built a consistently strong basketball program, and Hawkins Arena plays a part in that. Bobby Lamb has taken the first few steps to building something special in football, and Mercer University Stadium certainly is a big part of that.

Gibson has the program in place to have yet another strong season. Now that program just needs to facilities to go along with to match that success.

Contact Daniel Shirley at 744-4227 or dshirley@macon.com.

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