Mercer's softball team undergoes terrific turnaround

The late winter of 2007 seems like so long ago.

Mike Raynor was the quasi-retired president of Southern Color and Chemical, the softball umpire coordinator for the ACC and Peach Belt conferences, an SEC umpire and a community coach at Sequoyah High School.

“I was kind of retired and consulting and fishing a lot and enjoying life,” Raynor said. “Had one leg in the rocking chair.”

Then, Tony Foti abruptly resigned as head softball coach at Mercer. Three weeks before the season’s first pitch.

“Coaching was my first love, that was my first job,” Raynor said. “I liked it, I was about to starve to death. I got out and chased the money for 25 years and fortunately was able to throw a little bit back and save it.”

Foti had gone 141-148, with one 69-53 stretch, very good for a program that had one winning season before his arrival. So Raynor looked into and took the job. Mercer followed Foti’s run with a brutal 14-46 record, the Bears’ worst mark in 14 years.

“That first year was a nightmare,” Raynor said. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life associated with athletics, to stand out there in the outfield with that team 46 times and try to convince them that we still had hope, and we were gonna still fight.”

Now, Mercer is nearing the end of the second season of the best two-season stretch in team history — currently 67-43, a 60.9 percentage — and one of any Mercer team’s best two-season stretch in more than a decade.

In fact, the only Mercer team sports to have back to back winning seasons in this decade are men’s soccer (2000-2002), women’s soccer (2007-08) and baseball (2005-07).

The men’s soccer team had four straight winning seasons from 1999-2002 and is the last Mercer unit to reach any NCAA postseason.

Junior left fielder Holly Oglesbee is ready to change that. The first-team all-conference pick leads Mercer with a .317 average and is tied for second with four homers.

“We have fun while we’re playing, we’re determined while we’re playing,” said Oglesbee, who brings almost a linebacker mentality to the dugout. “We also remember we’re out here for a reason. We’re out here to win.”

The Bears complete the regular season at home with a non-conference three-game series Wednesday and Thursday, and one win sets the school record for victories in a season.

Seniors Cassy Neilson, Lindsey Talamantes, Page Raynor and Lacey Richardson will be honored before Thursday’s 2 p.m. doubleheader.

Backup outfielder Talamantes is the only four-year senior in the group, while the other three are transfers completing their second season at Mercer.

They’ve made the most of just two seasons.

Richardson transferred from Georgia Tech, where she was the Yellow Jackets’ closer and had six saves in two seasons.

“Mercer has been a definite blessing for me,” said Richardson, who is 23-15 at Mercer. “It’s put me in an environment that I feel more comfortable pitching in. I just have a lot more fun out here.”

Neilson was a junior-college all-conference pick at College of the Canyons in California, and Page Raynor came to Mercer with her father after starting for two seasons at North Georgia, a rival of Georgia College & State’s in the Division II Peach Belt.

The three became the building blocks for this season, one in which chemistry has been huge.

“We’re all so close,” said freshman shortstop Sara Stukes, second on the team with a .298 average and one of only two Bears — Page Raynor is the other — to have started every game this season. “We have a bunch of talented young players, but it also helps with the older players going through that awful season. The fire and desire to win trickles down to everybody else.

“Everybody works to pull it all together.”

Sweeping an Auburn team that entered the series 17-4 got the Bears believing. Mercer won 7-6 in nine innings and then 1-0 at Auburn.

“We went from a question mark,” Mike Raynor said, “to an exclamation point to ourselves.”

Mercer has ridden the arms of Richardson and sophomore Jenni Holtz to the edge of 36 wins. Holtz is third in the A-Sun with a 1.49 ERA while Richardson is ninth. Batters are hitting only .192 against Richardson and .195 against Holtz, ranking them second and third in the conference.

Jenny Goodman, Anna Johnson, Megan Rutherford and Allison Jones are among the top pinch-hitters in the A-Sun, and newcomers Stukes and transfer Emi Sherrill are near .300 at .298 and .290.

And Mercer spent three weeks as the top defensive team in the nation, dropping to all of fifth.

The team is mostly homegrown, something of a change from the past, with 19 players coming from Georgia, including three from Middle Georgia: Johnson of Westfield, and Jena Ellis and Lilli Luke of Crisp Academy.

Mercer ended up as the home for a pair of major-college transfers: Johnson from South Carolina and Richardson from Georgia Tech. And Kari Chambers came in from Eastern Michigan and Sherrill from Gardner-Webb.

Newcomers and more competition for time hasn’t been a disruption.

“It was hard to predict if we were going to jell together,” Richardson said. “All the returning players got together and we said, ‘We’re going to have to make an effort to jell and integrate the freshmen and the returning players in order to make sure we communicate on the field and that we work together well.’ ”

Raynor, aided by former Georgia College & State standout Joni Frei as well as ex-Mercer baseball player Tyler Brown and Dan Wallace, is only mildly surprised at the major turnaround from the 14-46 season.

“I knew we could get there if I could get everybody to work hard and buy into my style,” he said. “I was going to change the whole team philosophy, and, in my opinion, being from the old school with old-school ways that are structured and disciplined, we had a chance turn things around in a hurry.”

Whatever happens this week against Samford and next month at the conference tournament, the future is only brighter.

The top three hitters — Oglesbee, Stukes and Sherrill — are underclassmen, Holtz is only a sophomore, and 13 Bears who have played in at least 25 games return next season.

Nobody is looking that far ahead.

“Our record should be better,” Oglesbee said of this season. “This is definitely a young team, but I have expectations.

“I want to win conference and I think this is the year we’re going to win conference.”