Despite winless appearance in NCAA regional, Mercer baseball’s returners give reason for hope

Mercer head coach reacts to 10-6 loss to FAU in NCAA Athens Regional

Mercer head coach Craig Gibson speaks with the media after the Bears' 10-6 loss to Florida Atlantic in the NCAA regional Saturday in Athens. The loss ends the Bears' season.
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Mercer head coach Craig Gibson speaks with the media after the Bears' 10-6 loss to Florida Atlantic in the NCAA regional Saturday in Athens. The loss ends the Bears' season.

Not a semblance of joy came from the Mercer Bears Saturday afternoon, but there was a trickle of optimism.

Mercer’s season came to an end with a 10-6 defeat to Florida Atlantic. A late-game surge gave the fourth-seeded Bears some hope, but not enough for a Cinderella story to write its first chapter. As head coach Craig Gibson sat alongside a departing program star in Kel Johnson and Kyle Dockus, a scrappy returning infielder, Mercer kept its season in perspective.

Gibson rallied his team for a rather-unbelievable run in the Southern Conference tournament, winning five consecutive games to earn an automatic bid. But on the biggest stage, Mercer’s youth gradually saw those winning ways dwindle. Throughout the final two innings of play, however, Mercer saw a glimpse of the future flash before its eyes.

Johnson’s swan song came with an eighth-inning home run, although Gibson wishes he could apply for a “special petition” and lobby for the Georgia Tech graduate transfer to earn more eligibility. He preceded the young guns flexing their muscles. Freshmen and sophomores led the six run onslaught. Leyton Pinckney’s single started it and Collin Price’s pop highlighted it as the season’s fitting cap.

“Somebody told me this was the second-youngest team in the field of 64,” Gibson said. “We have some young pieces and they’ve been very good for us. The future is really bright for this program, and that’s really what our program is really about — bringing in young guys and developing them.”

Mercer could lose Sawyer Gipson-Long to the MLB amateur draft along with a group key seniors: Johnson, Nick Spear, Kevin Coulter and Kyle Bialousz. A total of eight seniors or graduate students are leaving the program.

Once Florida Atlantic gained full control of the game, Gibson shifted to one core focus: a changing of the guard, especially on the mound. Taylor Lobus, a redshirt senior who could shift pursuits after graduating this summer, exited first after being removed by pitching coach Brent Shade. Mercer’s dugout cleared, and all of his teammates applauded from behind the foul line.

Here are some of Telegraph visual journalist Jason Vorhees's favorite shots from the Mercer-Florida Atlantic game in the NCAA Athens Regional. The Bears lost 10-6 on June 1, 2019.

Coulter’s ceremonious departure followed, and he brought an extra element of emotion. He hugged each teammate during a reflective walk toward the dugout. Coulter’s glove covered his mouth, and his coach stood behind with a loud applause.

“It was bittersweet to see him come off of the field for the last time,” Gibson said. “It’s a long journey and I don’t think people realize what goes into it with the offseason, training and morning workouts.”

Once Bialousz left the game, Mercer let its youthful core blossom. Freshman Peyton Berry and junior Andrew Kane combined for a scoreless inning to finish off the pitching efforts. Offensively, three of the Bears’ first four hitters are freshmen and seven-of-12 hits came from first-or-second year players.

That surge from returning players didn’t fulfill desires, but gave motivation. A bitter taste. A reason to work, after a little rest, of course.

“I don’t think anybody on the team is really happy with how we finished,” Dockus said. “Earlier in the year if you would have said we’d be here, we might have been surprised. I think now that we’re here, you know, we’re not happy to just go to regional.”

Johnson and Dockus reflected while sitting alongside their coach. Thoughts of early fall mornings over a glowing Macon sunset popped into their heads. Mercer woke up at 6 a.m. for running and weight training sessions. After a full academic day, practice didn’t end until late. Far from fun, but those preseason efforts catapulted a postseason appearance. After all, those are ever-important for a team in a one-bid conference.

As the Bears’ elder statesman, everyone knew about Johnson. He didn’t transfer as a back-of-the-bench piece, but played a significant role for the Yellow Jackets. Johnson had a plethora of memories inside Russ Chandler Stadium, and these first- and second-year athletes quickly became a sponge. The likes of Price, Bill Knight, all-freshman honoree Angelo DiSpigna voluntarily asked for advice.

“I can’t tell you how many times younger hitters have come up to me (with questions) — mechanical, approach or work ethic stuff,” Johnson said. “It could’ve been anything, and it wasn’t me having to impose help on them. I’ve seen that translate to the field many times.”

Gibson, a Mercer alum and 16-year craftsman of the program, knows what the cycle entails for his club. He had an idea of what this regional would present, and knows what it takes to return to one. Gibson has four appearances attached to his name, the last being in 2015.

His optimism stems from a belief in his program’s status. A three-year gap until a postseason return seems less likely.

“I think the expectations are to always compete for a championship,” Gibson said. “We’ve had some success the past 10 years, and that’s part of having a good program and not just a good team. Once you have guys buy in and have success, that’s when you build a program.”