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Pair of DWS grads lead Mercer into NCAA baseball tourney

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ATLANTA -- If you're looking for Thomas Carroll and Evan Boyd, a couple of Deerfield-Windsor grads who took their baseball dreams to Mercer, they're easy to find.

Both of them are walking 10 feet off the ground.

Just like everyone else at Mercer, where the Bears are making their first trip to the NCAA Baseball Tournament.

"It's an awesome feeling. It's almost surreal, '' said Boyd, a freshman shortstop who came on strong as the season progressed -- just like Mercer, which has floated into the Atlanta Regional with as much emotion as any team in the nation.

The Bears were buried in sixth place when a team meeting and some good old fashion fun turned the season around -- a season that has seen Mercer win 17 of its last 20 games, including four in a row to win the Atlantic Sun Conference title for the first time since 1983.

That's why these kids feel so giddy -- and so confident.

None of the Bears seem to care that Mercer opens the regional at 7 p.m. on Friday against Georgia Tech, the eighth-ranked team in the nation. If that's not bad enough, Tech is the host team of the double-elimination regional.

The odds couldn't be much greater. Just don't tell the kids from Deerfield-Windsor.

"It's a win-win situation for us,'' Boyd said. "Nobody expects us to win. If Georgia Tech wins everybody expected it. But if we win, we will shock the world.''

Mercer has had a shocking turnaround.

Go back to that Friday night on the road against East Tennessee State. It was April 16, and the Bears had just lost 13-10, dropping their fifth game in their last six.

"We met in the hotel room -- some of the seniors and me -- after that game,'' said Carroll, a junior who plays right field. "We talked about what was wrong with the team. We came to the conclusion that everything was so stressful. Everybody was playing so tight. We knew we had a talented team. We just needed to play loose and not press so much.''

The next day, the Bears had a closed door team meeting, and that's the message the seniors and Carroll delivered.

"We told them that we wanted to start playing loose,'' Carroll said. "We just can't continue to play so tight. It was like we were putting pressure on ourselves on every play. We told everyone that we just need to have fun.''

No one dreamed it would be this much fun.

The Bears took the doubleheader that day and won 11 of their next 12 games. They haven't stopped gaining momentum, and no one is pressing -- not even against Georgia Tech.

"That meeting came at the right time,'' Boyd said. "It was do-or-die and we really came together after that. We were in sixth place, and only the top six teams go to the conference tournament, so we had to start winning.''

They did. Mercer climbed all the way to the No. 2 spot in the conference, then shocked everyone by winning four games in a row in the conference tournament to win the title with a 7-3 victory against Jacksonville last Sunday and earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

"It's all been a blur,'' Boyd said. "The week just flew by. It's one of the greatest feelings to win a championship, kind of a once in a lifetime feeling. I can't even explain what it was like when we had the dogpile at the end of the game. It was exhilarating. We were on Cloud 9 after that.''

The Deerfield kids have been right in the middle of Mercer's historical run. Boyd admits he struggled a bit at the beginning of the season, but he's hitting .314 now with a couple of home runs and 23 RBI. He has been a vacuum at shortstop and was on the Brooks Wallace Award list, the top honor for college shortstops. Boyd was a quarterfinalist, but figures this is the just beginning.

"Hopefully, I can move up the list next year,'' said Boyd, who reached the .300 average in the third week of the season and has been hitting better than .300 since.

Carroll's big bat sits at the heart of the order in the cleanup spot, where he has belted eight homers and driven in a remarkable 61 runs this season. He's hitting .312.

"It's the best season I've had since I've been here,'' Carroll said. "We've had a bunch of guys have big offensive years, and I've just blended in with the team.''

Carroll's modesty is part of Mercer's secret.

"The big thing is chemistry,'' Boyd said. "After that meeting we really started having better chemistry and playing better. ''

Mercer (37-22) will need chemistry and more to beat Georgia Tech (45-15), a team that believes it can win it all this year. The Yellow Jackets played Mercer in March, and hammered the Bears, 15-8 and 19-4.

"They have an unbelievable team,'' Carroll said. "But we're a completely different team now than when we played them before. As hot as we are, if we stay confident and play our game then we'll be in the game and we'll have a chance to beat them. All the pressure is on Georgia Tech. There's none on us. We have the advantage, because we're supposed to lose.''

So the Bears can do what they do best -- just go out and have fun.

"That meeting was the turning point for us,'' Carroll said. "We started playing loose and there was so much energy on the field. We just took off.''

They have yet to land.