Florida State has the prestige of an annual NCAA tournament program and an intimidating home-field advantage.
This year’s Seminoles also have the ACC tournament title.
But the Mercer Bears don’t sound daunted.
The Mercer baseball team heads to Tallahassee, Florida, on Friday to face Florida State at 6 p.m. at Dick Howser Stadium in the NCAA tournament. The other two teams in the Tallahassee Regional are Auburn and College of Charleston, and they get the regional started at noon.
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Florida State is 41-19 overall, while Mercer is 35-21. Both teams won their conference tournament titles -- Mercer in its first season in the Southern Conference.
“We’re going to play with a chip on our shoulder, and we’re going to go in there knowing we’re going to be the underdog,” senior pitcher Eric Nyquist said. “But we want to go out there and shock everybody and prove to everybody that we’re very competitive.”
The Bears have been more than competitive to close the season. They have won six of their past seven games and nine of 12. They stormed through the Southern Conference tournament with a 4-0 record, outscoring the opposition 32-10.
“It’s really big for us the way we finished,” sophomore center fielder Kyle Lewis said. “Our chemistry is at an all-time high right now, and that’s big for us.”
Lewis and Nyquist form a strong one-two punch to lead the Bears.
Lewis was the conference’s player of the year, and he is batting .373 with 17 home runs, 56 RBI and 48 runs scored. Thursday, he was named a Louisville Slugger All-American second team selection.
Nyquist was the MVP of the conference tournament with two strong outings, and he is 9-2 with a 3.22 ERA.
Florida State won its sixth ACC tournament title, beating N.C. State in the championship game. All-ACC first-team pick and USA Baseball Golden Spikes semifinalist DJ Stewart is batting .318 with 13 home runs and 52 RBI.
“It’s going to be tough. It’s the best 64 in the country,” senior reliever Morgan Pittman said of the tournament field. “But we’ll have a chance. Our pitching is good enough to keep us in the game, and we can score enough runs, so we should be fine.”
Florida State is 27-7 at home and typically plays in front of large and boisterous crowds. The Seminoles, however, lost their final four home games -- one to Coastal Carolina and three to Clemson.
“It’s a good environment, a big crowd, and you have to deal with the ‘animals’ down there,” Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said of the well-known lead group of Seminoles fans. “They will have 5,000, 6,000, 7,000 people down there, and it’s a tough place to play.”
The Bears, however, are looking forward to the challenge. They are 20-6 away from Claude Smith Field.
“I wouldn’t say nervous. We believe in our abilities,” Lewis said. “We have been that way all year, and it has worked for us. We just have to go in there and play our game. We know there is going to be some tough competition, but I feel like we can compete and possibly win some games and make some noise.”
The Bears’ veterans have been in this position before. Mercer played at Mississippi State’s regional in 2013, losing both of its games. The program also played at Georgia Tech’s regional in 2010 and went 1-2.
“It definitely helps,” said Nyquist, who was a sophomore in 2013. “When we went there my first time, just taking in the whole experience was unbelievable. I could tell we were nervous, and we did some things we hadn’t done the whole year.
“But going back now, our senior class can help the young guys out with this, not only enjoy it but to take it in and try to play well and realize it’s just baseball.”