Former Deerfield star and Herald Player of the Year Evan Boyd leads the Mercer Bears — seeded No. 1 — into today’s Atlantic Sun Tournament, where Mercer hopes to punch its ticket to the NCAA tourney. (Mercer University/Special to The Herald)
MACON — Evan Boyd knew his Mercer baseball team had a chance to make history this season.
The former Deerfield-Windsor star’s only question as he sat in a doctor’s office before his senior year was if he would be able to go along for the ride.
Boyd, the Bears’ star shortstop and The Herald’s 2009 Player of the Year, severely broke his wrist near the end of his junior season while sliding into home, and the rehabilitation dragged on for nearly a year, keeping him out of summer ball and forcing him to play through pain during the fall of his senior year.
He took the cast off his left wrist at the end of last summer, but the pain never went away, forcing him back to the doctor’s office over Christmas break.
“I talked to the doctor, and he said that there would be pain and discomfort but as long as I could play through it I couldn’t do anything worse to it,” said Boyd, who was diagnosed with a chronic fracture. “I knew then that I would play no matter what.”
With Boyd playing and starting in 54 of the team’s 56 games this spring, Mercer has put together the best season in program history, cracking into the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll for the first time at No. 23 and winning a school-record 42 games.
The Bears (42-14) are the No.1 seed in the Atlantic Sun and open the conference tournament today against No. 8 USC Upstate (26-28), and with the 28th-ranked RPI in the nation, they are a shoo-in to play in the NCAA Tournament even without a conference championship.
And Boyd, sore wrist and all, hasn’t missed a moment of the remarkable season.
“I don’t know if there has been one defining moment this year, but there has been a lot of little moments throughout the season where I have been like, ‘Wow, this is a team that has a chance to be really special,’ ” Boyd told The Herald during a recent telephone interview from Macon. “People around the nation are finally noticing who we are. We have had good teams in years past and haven’t had much credit. It feels good that people are finally recognizing who Mercer is and what Mercer is about.”
Boyd is one of six seniors who have been cornerstones to the Bears’ success and has been with the program for four years and left a legacy unparalleled in Mercer athletics history, winning 157 games during that span heading into today’s postseason opener.
“We’re going to miss this group, obviously for what they’ve done on the field,” Mercer coach Craig Gibson told The Macon Telegraph in advance of the conference tournament. “But these guys are fixtures. Really, what a great group.”
Boyd said that being a senior has made this season’s journey even sweeter.
“Me and the other guys who have been here four years, it’s amazing what this team has accomplished and achieved over the four-year period,” said Boyd, the only four-year starter on the team. “We won an A-Sun championship my freshman year, were runner-up our sophomore year and had a good chance to win it last year. We have all come together for one mission, and that’s to become the best team in Mercer history.”
But Boyd wants to reach even higher.
“If we don’t get a ring or don’t play in the (NCAA Tournament), it’s all going to go down the drain,” Boyd said. “What we have done so far doesn’t really matter.”
Boyd had the best season of his career as a junior, hitting .335, which was 11th-best in the A-Sun, and leading the conference with 42 walks and 20 doubles. He also stretched his streak of consecutive games started at shortstop to 174 — a mark that was snapped when he broke his wrist on May 17.
Since that injury, Boyd has never been the same at the plate. He is hitting .240, which is second-lowest among Mercer’s starters, and has a team-low slugging percentage of .328, but the senior isn’t using his wrist as an excuse.
“It’s nothing I can’t play through and nothing that will stop me. It’s no excuse for the way I am playing,” he said. “I knew I had to play through my wrist, because I wanted to be that leader. I have been here four years, and you need somebody out there who knows the program and can pretty much navigate and control the team.”
While Boyd isn’t blowing anybody away with his power this year, he’s finding other ways to get on base. He has drawn a team-high 35 walks and has an on-base percentage of .369, which is on par with the rest of the team.
“I feel confident at the plate, and that’s one thing that I am really proud of myself for because I never have doubted myself,” Boyd said. “There’s a little quote that I read every day that says, ‘Don’t be upset with the outcome. Only be upset with your preparation.’ I feel like I am putting in the preparation to give myself the best chance to get on base.”
Boyd has stayed in contact with Deerfield coach Rod Murray since graduating four years ago, and Murray said Tuesday that he isn’t shocked his former star battled through the injury.
“It is incredible,” Murray said. “He had to work hard to get back, but his work ethic and willingness to do the little things to get back is a testament to Evan. I know he is a very good leader in that clubhouse because he was one for us here at Deerfield.”
As a freshman, Boyd and the Bears beat Elon University for Mercer’s first — and only — win in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bears are back in the tournament for the first time since 2010, and Boyd wants to stretch history even further.
“I think it’s right there in front of us,” Boyd said. “It’s baseball. It’s not football where the superior, bigger, faster team always wins. In baseball you have to come to play every day, and on any given day anybody can beat anybody. We have the confidence, the leadership and are a veteran ball club. We know what it takes to win.”
They’ve beaten some of the top team in the nation this year, getting wins against Ohio State, St. John’s, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. And with five straight victories heading into the postseason, the Bears are ready to knock off a few more giants.
“We understand that will be hard, and it takes a lot of work, but that’s what we want to do,” Boyd said. “To look back at how I have grown over the four years, it’s been really fun to watch guys under me and above me play. Everything has come together, and it’s been a heck of a senior season. I never could have asked for more.”