Even after a 1-4 start and then sitting at .500 through 16 games, Mercer baseball head coach Craig Gibson wasn’t overly concerned.
After all, he expected some early struggles with such a young every-day roster.
But once the young Bears shook off those issues, they took off. They clinched the Southern Conference regular-season title Friday night with a win over Samford in their first season in the conference and also earned the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament this week in Charleston, South Carolina.
“We have come on, and we have gotten better, and that’s the most important thing; we messed around and now have a chance to win it,” Gibson said with a smile Saturday. “I couldn’t be happier. Probably in all the years I have been coaching, it’s the most rewarding year I’ve had.”
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That satisfaction comes from watching the young lineup come together and grow through the season. The Bears’ every-day lineup includes five sophomores (catcher Charlie Madden, first baseman Howard Joe, shortstop Matt Meeder, third baseman Danny Edgeworth and center fielder Kyle Lewis) and two freshmen (Jackson Ware and Trey Truitt).
The other two spots are filled by seniors: second baseman Devin Bonin and designated hitter Nate Moorhouse. And the pitching staff has plenty of senior experience, led by starter Eric Nyquist and relievers Morgan Pittman and Dimitri Kourtis.
“It’s different,” Gibson said of the tournament atmosphere facing his team this week. “The young guys -- Jackson’s not a freshman and Truitt’s not a freshman anymore -- have been through a whole season now. It helps that we have those seven great seniors on the mound. Devin is probably the best second baseman I have ever coached, and Moorhouse has turned it on, so it’s going to be a great week.”
That week starts at 5 p.m. on Wednesday against The Citadel, which beat East Tennessee State on Tuesday. During the regular season, Mercer took two of three from The Citadel.
Lewis was named the conference’s player of the year Monday.
“It’s definitely a different level. The intensity rises,” Lewis said of the conference tournament. “But the guys who haven’t been in it before can rise to the occasion. I believe in my guys, and since we have played 50 games, everyone knows what to expect. Baseball is baseball, and we just have to be ready to play.”
The Bears have been ready to play more often than not since their tough start. They finished 16-7 in conference play, sweeping two of their conference series and winning four others 2-1.
Mercer split with Wofford with the final game of that series canceled because of weather, and the Bears lost only one conference series: 2-1 to UNC Greensboro.
“When we were coming into the season, we knew we had a chance to be good, but we didn’t know how soon,” Lewis said. “I’m proud of my guys for coming on late and coming together as a team and having everyone chip in.”