The tease was on.
Regional brackets came and went Monday on the big screen at Wild Wing Cafe, and Mercer players, coaches, friends and family patiently watched. The Bears reacted at East Tennessee State getting in the Nashville regional with top-ranked Vanderbilt and then who was going to Raleigh, N.C., which was a possible destination for the Bears.
The pairings for Tallahassee, Fla., included a team from Georgia, but it was Savannah State.
Most projections had the Bears going to the NCAA baseball tournament at either N.C. State or Florida State as a second seed, and 23 minutes into the selection show, those two regionals were done, and only four remained.
“I started getting scared,” senior shortstop Evan Boyd said. “It started to get a little too close to the wire there for us. I knew we were getting in, but you’re thinking, ‘What the heck is going on?’ We just had to wait for our time.”
Finally, up popped “Mercer” on the screen, and up popped many Bears in celebration, including head coach Craig Gibson, who high-fived anybody in range as the NCAA on Monday sent Mercer to Mississippi State’s regional.
“To see our name up there is really special, especially when it went to the end, the anticipation,” Gibson said. “I think we were one of the last brackets to be announced. As the selections grew, the nervousness grew.”
Mercer had to sweat it out but got the athletics program’s first NCAA Division I at-large bid in history and will try to add to that when it heads to Starkville, Miss., for its second NCAA bid in four years.
The Bears are seeded third and will play second seed South Alabama at 3 p.m. on Friday with top seed Mississippi State facing fourth seed Central Arkansas at 8 p.m. Friday’s losers play at 3 p.m. on Saturday and the winners at 8 p.m.
Mercer went 1-2 in a series at Mississippi State last season, winning the middle game 6-1 and losing 5-3 and 3-1.
Two years ago, the Bears gathered at the same locale in hopes of getting an at-large bid. The Bears were 39-21, seeded fourth entering the A- Sun tournament and lost in the championship game to Belmont. Stetson (RPI of 20) and Jacksonville (RPI of 46) got at-large bids, and Mercer (No. 56) was among the top teams left out.
This time, however, Mercer was considered an at-large lock, despite going 1-2 in the A-Sun tournament last week. All five major college baseball websites — Baseball America, Perfect Game, SE Baseball, College Baseball Insider and College Baseball Daily — predicted Mercer as a No. 2 seed.
As it turned out, there was much more of a deja vu feeling to two years ago than expected.
NCAA baseball committee chairman Dennis Farrell said in a teleconference that Mercer was the final team in the field and Michigan State was the first team out.
“We had actually a number of teams that were under consideration, and then it came down to those last two and trying to compare their bodies of work,” he said. “So I think that as we looked at Mercer and Michigan State, again, we zeroed in on non-conference strength of schedule and non-conference RPIs, and Mercer had just a little bit of an advantage over Michigan State in those.”
The Bears weren’t aware of all that when they left their selection party, and it was something of a buzz kill by the time they arrived for practice three hours later.
“All the projections had us as an easy two seed, a sure lock,” Boyd said later Monday. “Any way you can get in, you’re in. We’re here now. So long as we’re at the dance.”
Michigan State finished seventh in the Big Ten with a 33-17 overall record and 12-9 conference mark and didn’t qualify for the six-team Big Ten tournament. The Spartans’ RPI of 42 is was 14 spots behind the Bears.
Aaron Fitt of Baseball America and Kendall Rogers of Perfect Game.org, considered by most the two top college baseball writers in the country, were floored that Mercer was the final team to get in.
“That Starkville Regional also features another woefully under-seeded team in No. 3 Mercer (No. 28 in the RPI), which should have been a slam-dunk No. 2 seed after winning the Atlantic Sun regular-season title and going 43-16 overall,” Fitt wrote
Rogers tweeted that he had heard Sunday night that Mercer was out, but “really pleased the committee apparently went back to the table on that one. Deserve the bid.”
There were plenty of other debates going on about the field, which included No. 90 Towson and not No. 34 Notre Dame. Campbell (49-10, RPI of 42, weak strength of schedule) had a party with more than 100 people and didn’t get in.
The quasi-snub might work in the Bears’ favor, adding to motivation from their rough showing in the A-Sun tournament.
“We were really confident going in, and we got humbled,” all-conference designated hitter Nick Backlund said. “Luckily, we got humbled and still made it. We’re going to flush last weekend.
“Refocusing is good. I think we’ve been hungry all year.”