Craig Gibson didn’t hesitate before offering an answer.
In fact, the question wasn’t even completed before Gibson answered.
“It’s the best one. It’s the best I’ve ever had,” Gibson said, when asked where this year’s Mercer team ranks during his 13-plus seasons as the Bears’ head coach. “They’re the best kids I’ve ever had. It’s a fun group. I don’t use this word lightly, but I love these guys. It will be a sad day when this group comes to an end.”
That is high praise considering the program Gibson has built. The Bears, after all, have won more than 450 games and made three trips to the NCAA Tournament during Gibson’s tenure.
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But this year’s team has earned that praise.
Mercer is 29-6 as it rides an eight-game winning streak into VMI for a Southern Conference series starting Thursday. The Bears are tied for the nation’s lead in wins with Clemson and Texas Tech, while Oregon State has 28 wins.
Mercer beat Georgia State on Tuesday to improve to 6-1 against teams from Georgia, and the Bears are first place in the Southern Conference standings with an 8-1 record. Mercer is well on its way to its eighth straight season with at least 35 wins.
“I think anybody can have a good season, a good year,” Gibson said. “But to maintain it and to be a constant contender, seven, eight years, year in and year out, to have a good club, I think it says a lot about we’re selecting the right guys, we’re developing, we’re making guys better, and we’re competing for championships.”
This year’s team was expected to once again compete for championships. After all, the Bears have won the Southern Conference regular-season title the past two years, and they won the conference tournament title in 2015. Plus they had a veteran roster returning.
But two key additions have helped keep the Bears rolling as junior transfers Alex Hanson and JT Thomas have given an already strong lineup even more firepower.
Hanson transferred from St. Petersburg Community College. He is batting .303 with three home runs, 17 RBI and 25 runs scored in 31 starts.
“I’m not surprised, but it’s definitely good that I was able to do my job and be able to fit in,” Hanson said. “I feel like I play how the team wants me to play, and I keep working hard and stuff like that, so it feels good.”
Thomas transferred from Chattahoochee Valley Community College. He is batting .315 with nine home runs, 35 RBI and 35 runs scored in 34 starts.
“Most of the guys from last year came back, so I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to play a lot,” Thomas said. “But I had a good fall, had a good pre-spring, and I’m glad I’ve been able to come in the lineup and help out the team.”
And that team just keeps winning and flexing its muscles. Mercer leads the conference in home runs (57), scoring (8.1 runs per game), on-base percentage (.421), bases on balls (211) and slugging percentage (.515) while ranking second in hits (362).
That success continues on the mound as the pitching staff ranks in the top three in the conference in strikeouts (316), ERA (4.40), wins (29), innings pitched (317) and walks allowed (105).
“We thought they were good people, Gibson said of Hanson and Thomas. “That’s first and foremost when you bring in a transfer, a two-year guy, just how they’re going to fit in the group. Those two guys are special. They’re good students; they’re great kids. And that’s one thing about this entire group. It’s been just a fun group from start to finish, and those two guys have added a lot to that.”