This time last year, the Mercer players knew they were headed into the Southern Conference for the first time in the fall.
But they didn’t know exactly what to expect.
Now they do.
The Bears enter their second season in the conference this fall, and they got to work with about 25 players holding workouts Tuesday to begin the summer preparations. Head coach Bobby Lamb, who had a background with the Southern Conference after playing and coaching at Furman, said the full squad, including the incoming freshmen, report June 28.
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“Now we have our feet wet and know what we have to do to win,” linebacker Tyler Ward said Tuesday at the Peach State Pigskin Preview at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. “We were so close in all those ballgames, but now we know what it takes. It’s going to take a little bit more than what we put in last year to win the fourth quarter.
“It’s a motivation and lets us know we have to go a little bit extra to win the ballgame. We were strong enough, and we competed very well, but we have to learn how to win.”
The Bears’ program returned after a long hiatus in 2013 with a 10-2 season while playing in the non-scholarship Pioneer League. Last year, the Bears finished 6-6, including 1-6 in the Southern Conference. Five of those conferences losses went right down to the wire.
“This summer is going to be important. We went 6-6 last year, and we can’t have that again,” quarterback John Russ said. “We want to win a SoCon championship; that’s our motivation. In the inaugural season, we won the fourth quarter. When the games came down to it, we took over and made a play and won the game. Last year, when we’d get to the fourth quarter, we’d make a mistake.
“If we can just get the fourth quarter back, we can win games, and we’re striving to be great.”
That learning curve starts with the more experienced Bears, and the original players are going to be juniors this fall.
“There is no substitution for experience; Tyler and John basically have played in every game we’ve played,” Lamb said. “And they have been kind of the cornerstones of what we have done on offense and defense. It’s hard to believe they’ve only got two more years.
“This is a big year for us. Last year, we got into the Southern Conference, and we got a taste of it. We have a lot of players back, and we have a good recruiting class, so there are some exciting things going on.”
One of the exciting parts for Ward is having younger brother Jonathan on the roster. The two Wards were teammates two years at Tattnall Square and really got on the field a lot together when Jonathan was a sophomore and Tyler was a senior.
They were reunited Tuesday at the summer workouts.
“His first morning was (Tuesday) morning. He got on the field with us and is ready to go,” Tyler Ward said. “It’s a dream. We can just sit there and talk football for hours, and that is fun. (Tuesday) morning was really cool, and we’re really excited about it.”