Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Gibson's Guidance Leads Bears to A-Sun Success
Sophomore third baseman Chesny Young had just one day to enjoy his status as the Atlantic Sun Conference Baseball Player of the Year before his Mercer Bears took the field as the No. 1 seed in the 2013 A-Sun Championship.
What goes through the mind of a young player who is voted the best player in a league with a well-deserved reputation of outstanding baseball?
Pressure? Anxiety? Overwhelming excitement? Whatever his emotions, fortunately for Young he has to look no further than the end of the bench or the coaches’ box for help on how to manage them.
That is because his skipper Craig Gibson, the 2013 A-Sun Coach of the Year, was one of three Bears in program history to earn Player of the Year honors, and was the last to do so in 1985.
Gibson began his successful career in baseball at Mercer as a player, and in his junior year of 1985 the hard-hitting first baseman earned Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year honors while leading the Bears to an Atlantic Sun Championship. Following completion of his career at Mercer, Gibson served a stint as a graduate assistant for longtime Bears coach Barry Myers, then enjoyed a successful high school coaching career before returning as a full-time assistant on Myers’ staff in 1993.
Some 20 years later, Mercer entered the 2013 season with Gibson still ranked in the Mercer single-season Top-10 in multiple statistical categories including batting average (T-8th), doubles (T-6th), home runs (8th), RBI (8th) and total bases (7th).
In 2004, Gibson was an easy choice to be Myers' successor. Since taking over the helm of the Bears nine years ago, Gibson has revitalized the Mercer baseball program and helped it achieve national recognition for its success on the field, in the classroom and in its involvement in the Macon, Ga., community.
While continually building since he took the reigns in 2004, Gibson and the Bears have enjoyed a new level of success since 2010. In the last four years Mercer has posted a mark of 158-79 overall with a 69-42 record in A-Sun play with an A-Sun Championship in 2010 and a regular season title and now 43 wins this season. The Bears are also currently ranked 23rd in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers of America Poll and 25th in the Baseball America Top-25 Poll.
While riding the Bears’ wave of success that began with the program’s turnaround in 2006, Gibson has led Mercer to a number of program-defining victories over some of the nation’s elite. Nearly a dozen times Mercer has toppled nationally ranked teams such as UCF, College of Charleston, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and a pair of No. 1 ranked teams in Florida and Clemson in back-to-back weeks. This season the Bears knocked off #12 Georgia Tech and swept the series from then No. 24 FGCU.
Just as the Bears have excelled as a team under Gibson, there has been no shortage of individual achievements. Since 2006, a dozen Bears earned A-Sun All-Conference first team selections, with a total of 29 All-Conference honors given to players under Gibson’s watch. Two of those selections, 2006 closer Andrew Urena and 2010-2011 third baseman Jacob Tanis earned consensus All-American honors from several publications.
Additionally, a total of 14 players under Gibson’s tutelage have been drafted since the 2006 season. And while his dedication on the field is without question, Gibson also exhibits the willingness to push his players in the classroom. Mercer’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) has steadily improved under Gibson, now reflecting an outstanding four-year average of 974.
But the program’s resurgence did not come overnight. In fact, after a nine- and eight-game improvement in 2004 and 2005, it was in 2006 that Gibson and the Bears began their turnaround. Mercer ascended to among the leaders in the conference, finishing the season in third place at 34-26 overall and 19-11 in A-Sun play. The 2006 campaign produced the first 30-win season for Mercer since 1999, tied the school record for most A-Sun wins in school history and ended a seven-year postseason drought at the same time.
Success began to snowball as in 2007 the Bears won 33 games and finished second in the A-Sun regular season race. In 2008 the growth slowed a bit but the Bears still managed 17 wins in conference play, helping them earn a third consecutive No. 2 seed in the A-Sun Championship. In 2009 Mercer finished with at .500 with a 23-23 record and checked into the championship for the fourth-straight season.
After making steady progress during the first six seasons of his tenure, Gibson’s efforts culminated in a fantastic 2010 campaign. He guided the Bears to a 38-win season, into the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance and provided the most storied season of the program’s 62-year history. Predicted to finish tied for sixth in the A-Sun Baseball Preseason Poll, Mercer finished 38-24 overall and 16-11 in conference play under Gibson's guidance. The 38 wins were the second-most in program history while Mercer’s 16 conference victories were the most since a 19-11 A-Sun mark in 1999.
The season was a memorable one for Gibson, who garnered 2010 Georgia Dugout Club Division I Coach of the Year and 2010 SoutheasternBaseball.com Atlantic Sun Coach of the Year honors. Leading the Bears to their fourth Atlantic Sun Championship in program history and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Atlanta Regional, Gibson continued to work his magic in Mercer's defeat of No. 3 seed Elon for the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament victory. Mercer then pushed eventual Atlanta Regional champion Alabama to the limit in a 5-3 defeat.
As you can imagine, numerous records fell in 2010. Gibson also tutored Consensus All-American Jacob Tanis and a total of four All A-Sun performers. A total of 15 Bears earned A-Sun All-Academic honors in 2010, while sophomore Billy Burns garnered a CoSIDA ESPN the Magazine Academic All-District second team selection.
In 2011, Mercer finished the campaign with a 39-20 overall record and a runner-up finish in the A-Sun Championship. The Bears' 39 wins tied a then-program record for most wins in a single-season and finished the season with a No. 56 ranking in the National Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
Under Gibson, multiple Bears received postseason distinction including juniors Tanis and Brandon Love, both of whom were A-Sun All-Conference first team selections. Tanis was also named a National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) second team All-American while catcher Austin Barrett and outfielder Derrick Workman were tabbed Freshman All-Americans.
The Bears' 2012 season would again continue the attack on the record books, as the squad finished with a 38-21 overall record and in the process set a new program record for most regular season wins (37), breaking the previous mark of 36 set in 1981. Mercer clinched a spot in the A-Sun Championship on the final day of the regular season and made its seventh straight appearance in the conference postseason championship.
Once again Gibson's coaching efforts resulted in multiple individual postseason awards. Redshirt sophomore Nick Backlund shined in his first year at Mercer and was named to the Louisville Slugger All-American first team, the A-Sun All-Conference first team and the ABCA/Rawlings All-South Region first team. Young made history as he was the first Mercer player named A-Sun Freshman of the Year, while also earning Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American Team honors. Workman was also selected to the A-Sun All-Conference first team and A-Sun Academic All-Conference first team.
It’s funny how things often come full circle. Twenty-seven years ago, Mercer junior first baseman Craig Gibson was chosen as the best player in the league. Nearly three decades later, Gibson is now the best coach in the league, and he coaches the best player in the league.
Whatever wisdom Gibson had to share with Young must have been good stuff, as Young went 1-for-2 with a team-high four RBI. And now the A-Sun’s regular season champ, the A-Sun Coach of the Year and the A-Sun Player of the Year took a good first step toward proving they and their team are the A-Sun’s elite today with a 12-6 victory against USC Upstate.