There is a lot of new surrounding the Mercer baseball program this season.
Plenty of new faces. A new park on the horizon. And a new conference.
Head coach Craig Gibson is looking forward to all of it.
The Bears open their season Friday at home against Virginia Tech. Mercer’s first Southern Conference game is March 20 against former A-Sun rival East Tennessee State.
“We’re in a new league, so we are excited about playing in the Southern Conference and excited about playing people we haven’t played,” Gibson said. “Plus, we have a great opening series with Virginia Tech, so that will be fun for us. (In the conference), every team is new and different, and this team is going to be exciting to watch them play because we have so much newness. It will be exciting to watch them perform and get a full season under their belt.
“For me it’s bittersweet (to switch conferences). I really like the A-Sun in baseball. I really enjoyed the coaches, just the camaraderie as friends and opponents, and I look forward to building that in the Southern Conference. But the baseball in the A-Sun was tremendous, especially with the Florida presence. You don’t have that in the Southern Conference, but there is quality baseball.”
There has been plenty of quality baseball played by the Bears in recent seasons.
Mercer advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2013 and has won at least 38 games in every season starting in 2010. Last year’s team, led by Brandon Barker, Michael Massi and Chesny Young, finished 38-17.
This year’s team is led by seniors Dimitri Kourtis, Ben Lumsden and Eric Nyquist on the mound, while sophomores Kyle Lewis (outfield) and Charlie Madden (catcher) lead the way in the field.
“I have learned how to be a leader from watching the other guys my first few years here, and I have tried to mimic what they have done,” Kourtis said. “Coach Gibson always talks about how it’s a program and no one player is more important than the program. Those kinds of things are hard to figure out as a freshman, but now that we’re seniors, we understand what that means.”
Not only does the schedule get started against the ACC’s Hokies and focus on the Southern Conference, the Bears also have plenty of quality non-conference games ahead of them. Mercer will play Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern and Georgia State in home-and-home matchups and will host former A-Sun rival Kennesaw State.
The Bears were picked second in the conference preseason media poll and third in the coaches’ poll.
“It’s good to play the big schools and play your conference series and all that and average 38 wins a year. That’s why we came here,” Madden said of the Bears’ program and its success in recent years. “We’re definitely building a good program. We’re about something, not just wins and losses. We’re about togetherness and being a team.
“All the preseason (conference) polls came out, and they didn’t put us in first because we’re new to the conference. But I think we’ve got a good shot at winning it with our pitching, and we’re going to be better than people think.”
That includes an influx of new talent to the roster. This year’s team features 10 freshmen, joining eight sophomores, three juniors and nine seniors.
A few of the newcomers to watch are freshman outfielder Trey Truitt and freshman pitcher Carter Varga, along with junior college transfer Tyler Homer, a catcher.
“We have a lot of talented young guys,” Madden said. “Being a freshman is always tough. For the older guys, I guess considering myself an older guy, it’s doing what the guys last year did and helping teach the younger guys and lead them.”
That’s what this senior class is focusing on, along with continuing the success and program building the Bears have featured the past few seasons.
“I’m expecting to go out with a bang and play to the best of my ability and play hard and hope that the team does well,” senior leadoff hitter and second baseman Devin Bonin said. “It’s very hard to believe my career is almost over. Before you know it, it’s over with, and it’s already been four years. So I’m just hoping that it goes well, especially for this team, and that we can go out on a good note.”