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Monday, February 18, 2013

Mid-major spotlight

Kendall Rogers        
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As the head coach at a perceived mid-major program in the Atlantic Sun, Mercer's Craig Gibson knows the importance of getting off to a hot start and making a statement early in the season.

Mercer players apparently are well aware of that, too, as they put together quite an impressive weekend to begin the season. The Bears went a perfect 3-0 against solid competition, beating a trio of northern schools in Ohio State (6-5), St. John's (13-5) and a solid Notre Dame (5-4) team.

"I thought we played pretty well considering we didn't get great starts from at least two of our starting pitchers," Gibson said. "I thought our bullpen was phenomenal, and we were able to do some things offensively to distance ourselves from some opponents."

Mercer third baseman Chesny Young is coming off a huge weekend.

It was interesting to hear about the Bears. This squad finished last season with a 15-12 record in the Atlantic Sun, but also tallied an impressive 38-21 overall mark. The Bears finished short of an NCAA postseason bid, but are the favorites to capture the A-Sun automatic bid this spring.

Mercer had a near flawless audition to begin the 2013 campaign. The Bears opened the season against Ohio State, where starting pitcher David Randall was lifted after allowing two runs in just two innings of work.

As seemed to be the case throughout the weekend, the Bears got some clutch performances from their bullpen, with talented right-handed pitcher Dimitri Kourtis stepping up with four solid frames, while sidewinder David Teasley tossed 3 2/3 shutout innings to help the cause.

Unlike the rest of the weekend, the Bears actually received a solid starting performance from Brandon Barker in the blowout win over St. John's. Barker struck out six batters and allowed just one run on four hits in five innings of work.

Then, in the weekend finale against Notre Dame, it again was the bullpen duo of Teasley and Kourtis leading the way. Teasley struck out five batters in 3 2/3 innings, while Kourtis tossed 2 2/3 scoreless frames to finish things off.

While Teasley is a sidewinder who specializes in command and location, Kourtis is the more orthodox arm of the two with a fastball sitting in the upper 80s, lower 90s.

"He's a sidearm guy and he's a matchup type of guy. I'll always tell our guys, hitting is timing, and it's important to disrupt timing. He does that," Gibson said. "He's [Teasley] a great competitor and leader, and has tremendous poise with good mound presence. He just locates the baseball and throws multiple pitches for strikes.

"As for Kourtis, he's pretty special. All kids want to start in every program, but here, we try to build things from the back up. He's more of an upper 80s, low 90s type of arm," he said. "He'll drop down his arm slot at times to throw his breaking pitch. He's pretty effective out there."

While the pitching staff is work in progress with an average starting rotation -- at least for now -- along with a talented bullpen, the offensive side of things is one area the Bears have no concerns about a week into the season.

The Bears scored 24 runs in three games against good competition, and as you like to see this time of year, several veterans rose to the occasion. Third baseman Chesny Young, a preseason All-Conference player, had a double and two RBIs against Ohio State before finishing things off in style with a home run and RBI in the finale against Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Evan Boyd had three hits in the opener against Ohio State and a three-run home run against St. John's, while imposing physical specimen Nick Backlund also had a productive weekend.

Most surprising to Gibson and his coaching staff were the offensive strides made by infielder Michael Massi and outfielder Nate Moorhouse. Moorhouse hit a home run in the win over St. John's, while Massi hit a home run and recorded the game-winning hit.

It'll be interesting to see what happens with the Bears the rest of the season. Their offense and bullpen will allow them a chance to compete for the Atlantic Sun regular season title. But as usually is the case with leagues like this one, the Bears will need to take care of business in the conference tournament to reach the NCAA postseason.

That's when quality starting pitching will be needed most.

"I think this team has a chance to be very good. We need to develop a No. 1 starting pitcher, and fix some other areas, but this club has a lot of key pieces," he said. "We just have to get better. We didn't pitch well early on down there, but it was opening weekend.

"It's a good thing we have 50 more games to figure it out."

Mid-Major hot board

Saint Louis: The Billkens had an outstanding first weekend that included a home series win over Oral Roberts, who moved from the Summit League to the Southland Conference.

Texas-Arlington: The Mavericks started the season on a positive note, earning a home series sweep over conference foe Louisiana Tech in a "non-conference" series. The Mavericks have a chance to make a midweek statement against Texas.

Belmont: The Bruins are the favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference for a reason. They started the season in solid fashion with a 3-0 weekend, including a pair of wins over a very solid Valparaiso club.

Cal State Bakersfield: To no surprise, it looks like coach Bill Kernen has the Roadrunners to play this season. They dropped a game to Cal State Fullerton, but took care of business against USC and Nebraska.

Creighton: Outside of Mercer, no mid-major program had a better weekend than the Bluejays. In rather shocking fashion, the Bluejays hit the road and did a clean sweep of Dallas Baptist.

Florida Gulf Coast: The Eagles are expected to have a solid club this season, and started things on a positive note with a 2-1 weekend. FGCU defeated St. John's twice, with its only loss coming to a very good Notre Dame team.

Georgia Southern: This is supposed to be somewhat of a rebuilding campaign for coach Rodney Hennon and the Eagles, but they made an opening weekend statement with a home series win over in-state power Georgia.

Illinois State: Mark Kingston once again has his boys ready to play this season. The Redbirds, who should content for the Missouri Valley crown, began the season with a road series win over Conference USA's Memphis Tigers.

Kennesaw State: Joining the showering of wins in the A-Sun from over the weekend, KSU recorded a home series sweep over OVC opponent Jacksonville State.

South Alabama: The Jaguars were very pleased with the way their junior college arms performed over the weekend with plus 90 fastballs in a series sweep over Stephen F. Austin.

St. Joseph's: The Hawks were a team that we really liked on paper before the season. They started the season in impressive fashion, taking a road series from Stetson.

Tennessee Tech: Illinois is expected to have a solid campaign in the Big Ten, but TTU took care of business on opening weekend with a two of three series triumph.

Texas Southern: It's always good to give a little love to a SWAC institution. Well, the Tigers made a huge statement opening weekend with a pair of wins over OVC opponent Eastern Illinois.

UC Davis: Perhaps the Aggies are ready to surprise all of us. Picked to finish near the bottom of the Big West, the Aggies took three of four games from Pac-12 opponent Washington over the weekend.

UC Santa Barbara: The Gauchos have an exciting coaching staff and are expected to take a step forward this season. UCSB opened the season with an impressive road series win over Fresno State.

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