When Mercer made the move to the Southern Conference last summer, much of the focus was on football.
As it turns out, football faced the biggest adjustment to the new conference.
While the soccer teams got the Mercer athletics department off to a strong start in the Bears’ first season in the conference and that carried over to the winter and spring sports, football understandably had a growing period to go through. After all, Bobby Lamb’s program was in its first season with scholarships after playing its first season in the non-scholarship Pioneer League.
The Bears’ opponents? They have long-standing established programs in one of the top FCS conferences in the country.
“I was very pleased with our effort and how we competed in the Southern Conference,” Lamb said. “Obviously being down a good number of scholarships compared with everybody else in the league, nobody really knew what to expect going in. I was proud of our guys, and we had a chance to win every game but one.
“That’s a positive, but on a negative note, we didn’t finish some of those games the way we should have. I think we’re kind of where we need to be with this program. We’re taking it step by and step and continuing to build the program, and we’re excited about what’s coming up.”
Mercer competed with 38 scholarships to the 63 the other Southern Conference teams had. While the Bears finished 1-6 in the conference (6-6 overall), each conference game went down to the wire except for the season finale against Wofford.
This fall, the Bears will have 53 scholarship players, including several players who redshirted last year and are expected to compete for starting spots. The biggest adjustment for the team last year and this year is the physical nature of the step up in play from the Pioneer League to the Southern Conference.
“We got beat up a little bit on the interior on the offensive and defensive lines, which is to be expected,” Lamb said. “Our strength just wasn’t quite there yet. Being in the weight room is going to make a big difference.”
While football is still growing in the conference, several teams already have won or appear ready to win conference titles.
That started with the soccer programs in the fall.
Brad Ruzzo’s men’s team finished 14-7 overall and 8-2 in the conference. Ruzzo was the conference coach of the year, while Greg Ranjitsingh was the goalkeeper of the year and Will Bagrou was the freshman of the year. The team also had several all-conference picks.
Still, the Bears lost in the tournament final after winning Mercer’s first Southern Conference regular-season title.
“I knew that the Southern Conference for men’s soccer was going to be a couple of notches and steps up from the A-Sun,” Ruzzo said. “I was excited about it, but we knew it was going to be a challenge, and if we didn’t step up to that challenge, we could find ourselves fifth or sixth, and there’s only six teams in the league.”
Ruzzo’s team set the program’s single-season record for wins and lost 1-0 to Furman in the championship game with five freshman starters. So he’s excited about what’s next.
“We’re right there. We could have a good little run here the next couple of years,” Ruzzo said. “I’ve always said if you’re going to do it the right way, you can’t skip steps in the process. Unfortunately, part of the process is losing those heartbreaking games like that. Hopefully, if we get back there, the night before the guys will say, ‘Hey, we’ve been here. We know what it feels like on the other side. Let’s make sure we go win it.’ ”
Tony Economopoulos’ women’s program was able to do just that. The Bears went 14-6-2, including 6-1-2 in conference play, and then won the school’s first Southern Conference tournament title.
That win earned the Bears a trip to the NCAA tournament, where they lost to Florida in the first round.
“It’s a tremendous conference, especially with the tradition they have had,” Economopoulos said. “For us, it’s a more prestigious soccer conference, and we knew it was going to be a tougher battle. We were fortunate to have a senior-laden team to make the transition to a better conference.
“To do it in this conference in our first year, it was great for us. We challenged the girls last summer that we were going into a tougher conference, and they were going to have to do more work, and they did that.”
Ruzzo and Economopoulos both said the teams’ success helped both programs.
“Our girls and guys hang out a lot, and we share the same equipment, so there is a natural camaraderie there,” Economopoulos said. “Once you see their program being successful, you want to do that, as well.”
Ruzzo said that friendly competition can be seen throughout the entire athletics department.
“When you sit in the conference room in those staff meetings, you feel that, and I want to be part of that. I think in the fall, me and Tony were doing well, and I think other coaches said, ‘Hey, they’re getting us off to a strong start,’ and the winter sports wanted to keep it going, and then the spring sports followed it up,” Ruzzo said. “I think we have that feel around the athletic department that everyone has bought in and wants everyone to win, and that only helps everybody.”
The men’s and women’s basketball teams both adjusted well from the A-Sun to the Southern Conference. While neither won a conference title or advanced to the NCAA tournament, they both played in a postseason tournament.
Bob Hoffman’s men’s team played in the College Basketball Invitational, while Susie Gardner’s women’s team played in the Women’s Basketball Invitational.
Hoffman’s team finished 19-16 overall and 12-6 in the conference, good enough for third, and it advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament.
The Bears faced the season and their new conference with five new starters after losing seven seniors from the season before.
“I thought it was a great transition,” Hoffman said. “We had multiple one-possession games right at the end that we weren’t able to get it done. But the ability to play in a new league with a new starting five, I thought our guys did an amazing job, and it was a fun league to be in with a lot of great coaches and great players.
“You always would like to stay where you are because you feel like you know where you are with the coaches, and you feel like you have the upper hand in some ways because you have been around for so long and there are transitions in other places, and you feel more comfortable in that situation. But we got stretched this year as a team and a program, and that’s always good to find out what you’re made of and what you can do. We see exactly where we are right now and what we have to do to succeed in this conference.”
Gardner’s team finished 20-15, including 9-5 in the conference, also good enough for third. It also advanced to the tournament semifinals.
The Bears were led by four senior starters, so they will have a different-looking roster in the upcoming season.
“There are great coaches in the league. They are first-class people, and I enjoy competing with them so I think it was a great first year,” Gardner said. “(To get the next level), you recruit and you put them in scenarios that prepare them to play different styles. And now that you’ve been in it for a year, you challenge them, and we have challenged them to be ready for other players in the league and the top players in the league.
“Now you go from being the young players on the team to the leaders, and we’re trying to challenge them and prepare them from that. What we hope is they are going to take the good and the bad from (last season’s) leaders to learn and become leaders themselves.”
The baseball and softball teams had plenty of leaders in the spring.
Craig Gibson’s baseball team won both the conference’s regular-season and tournament titles, the first time the program has accomplished that, and it returned to the NCAA tournament for the third time since 2010.
“That was our goal, trying to accomplish something that we had never done before, and we kept challenging our seniors, to be honest with you,” Gibson said. “We had an at-large, and we had won a championship, but we had never won the regular season and the tournament in the same year. We were able to accomplish that, and we’re proud of that.”
Gibson was named the conference’s coach of the year, while Kyle Lewis was the player of the year as the Bears finished 35-23 overall and 16-7 in conference play.
“I think it was a good league for us, and the coaches are really outstanding,” Gibson said. “As far as playing, I think it’s very similar, and I can’t see a great difference. I think both leagues are one-bid leagues right now. Hopefully over time, the SoCon will grow into that league it once was when the strength of the league had multiple teams in postseason play. I think it’s very comparable, and I think it’s a really good fit for us.”
James DeFeo’s softball team finished 34-20 and made it to the conference tournament championship round. Kirsten Stevens was named the conference’s pitcher of the year.
The biggest adjustment for the softball program was playing fewer conference games with only seven teams in the conference.
“Less teams and less teams ranked high in the RPI and in the rankings. That kind of hurt us a little bit, but yet it’s a conference that has an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament, so we looked it as another stepping stone to building our program,” DeFeo said. “We only had three conference weekends at home and three away, so every single game matters, and that puts a lot of importance on those games.
“I definitely think it’s a good fit, and now after being it in for one year, they know they have to be locked in and win pitch by pitch and inning by inning to make every single game count. That’s the key in this conference.”
Mercer in the Southern Conference
A look at how the Bears’ teams fared in their first Southern Conference seasons with their record along with any postseason conference honors and first-team all-conference selections by the coaches.
Record (overall, conference): 35-23, 16-7.
Coach of the year: Craig Gibson.
Player of the year: Kyle Lewis.
First-team all-conference: Eric Nyquist, Kyle Lewis.
All-freshman team: Trey Truitt, Jackson Ware.
Of note: Won the conference regular-season title and the tournament; eliminated in NCAA tournament’s Tallahassee Regional.
Record: 19-16, 12-6.
First-team all-conference: Darious Moten, Ike Nwamu.
All-freshman team: Stephon Jelks.
Of note: Finished third in the regular season; lost in tournament semifinals.
Of note: Eighth in conference meet.
Record: 6-6, 1-6.
First-team all-conference: Chandler Curtis.
All-freshman team: Alex Lakes, Austin Barrett, Kyle Williams, Chandler Curtis.
Of note: Had five conference losses by single digits.
Of note: Finished sixth in tournament; senior Trey Rule qualified for NCAA tournament for third straight year.
Record: 5-8, 5-1.
All-freshman team: Jackson Kleintz, Matt Quinn.
Of note: Lost in tournament semifinals.
Record: 14-7, 8-2.
Coach of the year: Brad Ruzzo.
Goalkeeper of the year: Greg Ranjitsingh.
Freshman of the year: Will Bagrou.
First-team all-conference: Jordan Duru, Will Bagrou, Ashani Samuels, Greg Ranjitsingh.
All-freshman team: Will Bagrou, Airrion Blackstock, Carson Brooks, Thomas Glenn, Trenton Whitely.
Of note: Won the regular-season title; lost in tournament final.
Record: 12-13, 5-2.
Freshman of the year: Sam Philp.
All-freshman team: Sam Philp.
Of note: Lost in tournament quarterfinals.
Record: 20-15, 9-5.
Player of the year: Precious Bridges.
First-team all-conference: Precious Bridges.
All-freshman team: Kahlia Lawrence.
Of note: Finished third in regular season; lost in tournament semifinals.
Of note: Finished sixth in conference meet.
Of note: Finished eighth in conference tournament.
Record: 14-6-2, 6-1-2.
First-team all-conference: Maggie Cropp.
Of note: Won the tournament; lost to Florida in NCAA tournament first round.
Record: 34-20, 10-7.
Pitcher of the year: Kirsten Stevens.
First team all-conference: Kirsten Stevens, Taylor Miller.
All-freshman: Meghan Rud.
Of note: Lost in tournament championship round.
Record: 4-18, 0-6.
Of note: Lost in tournament quarterfinals.
Track and Field
Of note: Finished eighth in conference meet.
Record: 11-12, 6-10.
Of note: Lost in tournament first round.
Note: The sand volleyball and women’s lacrosse teams compete in the A-Sun.