The Mercer Bears are back in the NCAA tournament for the fourth time since 2010.
But they almost didn’t make it. The Bears entered the Southern Conference tournament on a losing streak and quickly found themselves on the losers’ side of the bracket after a blowout loss to Sanford.
But the team would not be denied, going on an impressive run over the final three days of the tournament, winning five straight games in the process.
The tournament was a microcosm of the Bears season, one filled with ups and downs from below the .500 mark to an 11-game win streak that righted the ship.
“We stuck to the plan,” head coach Craig Gibson said. “The culture here has been good for so long, the championship culture.”
Before the Bears take the diamond on Friday night against Georgia in the Athens regional, here is a look at how they made it.
The First Inning
The Bears opened the season winning two out of three against Evansville. It was the only loss in the month of February as the team showed no signs of an off season going 8-1 kick things off. The offense was the key catalyst in the early season success that included a 21-0 win over Alabama A&M and only one game in which they scored fewer than five runs.
They played just one road game during that mid-February run,picking up a win on a trip to Florida A&M in Tallahassee.
In one-run games, the Bears almost always found a way to win, going 9-2 in such contests — with four of those wins coming in the first nine games of the season.
Call to the pen
The Bears headed back to Tallahassee in early March to play the Florida State Seminoles. Mercer was swept in the three-game series. Now FSU is one of the four teams in the Athens Regional with the Bears.
The sweep at FSU started a downward spiral for Mercer. The team won just seven of its next 26 games, which included a 4-7 start in Southern Conference play. By then, the team’s hot start was long forgotten, and the Bears were left searching for an identity.
“We were really ... trying to find our way,” Gibson said. “A lot of newness. A lot of new guys in different roles. A lot of injuries to overcome.”
Seventh inning stretch
This next run of games really defined this season for the Bears as they were able to figure out just how good they could be when they got hot. Mercer went on a season-high 11-game winning streak and put the team back over .500 on the season at 26-20.
The rest of the way the team went 3-6 including dropping the last two games of the regular season.
The momentum had died down some heading into the Southern Conference tournament as the number 4 seed.
Bringing in the closer
In the midst of the longest NCAA tournament drought in the last 10 years, the Bears entered their conference tournament looking to go on a run.
They got off to an impressive start with a 11-2 win over Furman, but quickly found themselves in the losers bracket of the double-elimination tournament with a 11-0 loss to Samford.
It became an uphill climb for the Bears as they needed to win five straight elimination games to win the SoCon title and lock up the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. The run started with wins over UNCG and ETSU.
This would set up a rematch between them and Samford with a spot in the final on the line. The team was rarely the favorite heading into these games as the lower seed but found a way to pull out the wins.
Mercer would go on to a 4-3 victory and face Wofford for the title. Since Wofford was undefeated in the tournament, it needed just one win to clinch the title while Mercer needed two.
The Bears grabbed the first game 12-8 and then followed it with a 9-5 win in the title-clinching game.
Starting pitcher Tanner Hall, a former Houston County High School standout, closed the door on Wofford’s season by coming into the game to earn his first save of the year.
“Closing the game was extremely fun. You know, I wanted to be out there on one day rest...I wanted the ball,” Hall said. “I was fortunate to get it and close it out and send us to the regional.”
Mercer will now head to the Athens Regional where they will face Georgia on Friday night. Depending on the outcome of the two opening games, the Bears would then face either Florida State or Florida Atlantic on Saturday.
The winner of the Athens Regional will be paired against the winner of the Baton Rouge Regional next week.
The Bears have embraced the underdog role all season and have shown the ability to get hot at the right times.
Mercer will need some key contributions from their pitchers Hall and Sawyer Gipson-Long but also need the bats like RJ Yeager and Kel Johnson firing on all cylinders.