Athens Regional Preview: Mercer Bears

Courtesy: Mercer Athletics

By: Fletcher Keel | WCTV Eyewitness Sports
May 30, 2019

ATHENS, Ga. (WCTV) -- Florida State handled Mercer easily to open March, sweeping the Bears with a combined score of 26-8.

Since then, though, the two teams have gone in somewhat different directions. FSU struggled to find their footing in ACC play, needing a final-game win to secure their spot in the field of 64, while MU went on a bit of a tear and ran through the losers bracket in the Souther Conference tournament, earning their spot in the field.

It isn't out of the question the Noles and Bears will meet in Athens and to get the lowdown on MU, I reached out to WMAZ's sports director Jonathan Perez to get the lowdown on the Bears.

WCTV: What were the expectations for Mercer coming into this season and how did they meet or surpass them?
Jonathan Perez: Over the years, Mercer has established themselves as one of the strongest programs in the entire Southern Conference. Since joining the SoCon in 2015, they have won three straight regular season titles and one tournament title.

Entering this season, this team was picked to finish near the top of the Southern Conference, despite losing a lot of great pitching and strong position players who were key contributors to the program. The Bears were also heading into the season without two of their best power hitters, Lee Bassett and Brandon Michie, who they lost to injuries before the season even began.

I would say they surpassed their expectations this year. They have always had phenomenal coaching from Craig Gibson, and his staff has really built a reputation for developing players. But winning the Southern Conference while having to replace most of your weekend starting rotation AND missing your power hitters seemed unlikely.

WCTV: The Bears’ SoCon tourney loss came at the hands of Sanford (the team who beat FSU in game one of last year’s Tallahassee Regional) but were able to bounce back and win the conference, including a final-day doubleheader sweep of Wofford. What turned around for the Bears once they hit the losers bracket to make this run?
JP: They had quite the run in the Southern Conference this year. It was extremely impressive. They dropped their second game of the tournament to Samford, and then went on to win five-straight, which included two doubleheader victories (and took down the top seeds, No. 1 Samford and No. 2 Wofford). When they were facing elimination, the team as a whole stepped up. They had tremendous hitting, outscoring opponents 45- 28, and their pitching also came out strong. This is a team that knew what was required in order to get to a championship game even after losing on the second day. The experience spoke for itself. Prior to this season, Mercer had reached the Southern Conference Tournament Championship game three times in the last four years.

WCTV: While it may be a two-headed attack at the top, it looks like the Bears boast a pretty strong offense, 1-9. Outside of Kyle Dockus and Kel Johnson, who are the two or three guys would could step up to make some noise?
JP: Kel Johnson really stepped up this year and became Mercer’s power hitter and filled the void from Bassett’s and Michie’s injuries. Freshman Angelo Dispigna has also had a stellar year at the plate and has proven he can hit for power in big time spots. Redshirt freshman Trevor Austin is a guy who could step up in the regional; he is coming off a great tournament where he was locked in and batted .481 with six RBI, and scored 8 times to claim the Most Outstanding Player honors.

WCTV: If there’s a knock on the Bears as a whole, it looks like it’s on the pitching staff. What has led to the struggles on the bound for MU?
JP: Coming into the season, yes the pitching was a huge question mark. You had to replace practically all three weekend starters, which included their Friday night ace in Austin Cox, and your great bullpen reliever in Robert Broom, who were both selected in last years draft on the second day. But as of late, Mercer’s pitching has really sharpened up and they have gotten some great production from their guys on the mound. Tanner Hall has been a guy who has come out and pitched outstanding and has proven he can get you seven or eight solid innings. As the season went on, guys felt more comfortable on the hill, and really started to lock in.

WCTV: This is Mercer’s 4th regional appearance and they’ve never advanced to the Supers. What will have to happen, on the Bears’ end, for them to shock the baseball world and escape Athens to play in the next weekend of the tournament?
JP: In order for them to advance to the Super Regional, everything will have to go their way. They will of course need their bats, and their pitching will have to be extremely strong as they are going up against some power house programs in Georgia, and potentially FSU depending on how things shake up. Right now, they truly are playing their best baseball. They have won 20 of their last 27 games and have shown they can win numerous games while facing elimination.

WCTV: Having that said, how do you think MU will do this weekend and how do you foresee the Athens tournament going?
JP: I think it’s going to be a tough regional for the Bears. They are playing some really strong teams in Athens this weekend with of course UGA who they open against on Friday night, who happens to be the #4 national seed in the tourney. This is also the first time any of these players from this team are playing in a Regional.

But I also think Mercer will come out strong since they are playing an instate rival in Georgia, a team they are familiar with, and they have had success in Athens before. The last time they played at Georgia was in 2017, and Mercer won in extra innings. Mercer is coming into the tournament as the underdog, but I think they can thrive in that role. I don’t think they are necessarily going into it with the mindset of playing “upset”, but rather just taking it all in and playing their best baseball they can while enjoying this special opportunity.

This team surprised me before in the Southern Conference tournament. Coach Gibson said they may not have been the best team on paper in the SoCon tourney, but they were playing their best baseball and that’s why they won. I think the same thing can happen here where they will find a way to win a game and possibly two, to find themselves in the Regional final.

I'd like to again thank Jonathan for his insight on Mercer, a team the Seminoles could be facing later in the weekend. For more of Jonathan's coverage, click here.

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