Mercer faces familiar foe in NCAA Tournament first round

The Mercer men’s soccer team is making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2001 — and the program’s third overall — when it faces South Carolina at 1 p.m. on Thursday.

Facing a familiar opponent should help the Bears settle in to the game and the environment. Mercer beat South Carolina 3-2 on Aug. 30 in its second game of the regular season.

“I think it helps. You can come into these NCAA Tournaments knowing you can get someone completely different, and that’s a lot of work to prepare for,” Mercer head coach Brad Ruzzo said. “It won’t take us as long to know their personnel and know what they’re trying to do.”

The Gamecocks enter the NCAA Tournament with a 10-7-1 record, while the Bears are 13-6-1. Mercer earned the NCAA berth by beating East Tennessee State on Saturday to win the Southern Conference Tournament championship game.

That conference championship was Mercer’s first with Ruzzo as its head coach.

“It was more of a sigh of relief ... ‘finally’ and ‘thank you,’ ” Ruzzo said. “Just to go and be with the team and congratulate them. At the end of the day, as coaches, we can prepare them all we want, but the players have to step up in big moments. Our guys did that. I was just happy and wanted to see their reaction more than anything.”