(Photo via Stetson University Today, seen here)
It was a memorable weekend of firsts, Sportscenter top-ten plays, draft picks and win streaks for an unassuming baseball powerhouse in Deland, Florida. The Stetson Hatters, a longtime force in the Atlantic Sun conference, hosted their first-ever regional and won three straight games over Hartford and Oklahoma State to clinch their first NCAA Super Regional berth. The Hatters outscored the Hawks and Cowboys by a combined 29-6 over three games, and will face the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Chapel Hill Super Regional this weekend.
Stetson, a small private school of just over 3,000 students north of Orlando, has won eight conference titles and recently produced major league All-Stars such as Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber. However, a deep run into the NCAA tournament has always proved elusive, until this season. The Hatters cruised to a 45-11 regular season record behind solid pitching and defense and hosted their first-ever regional which first-year Assistant Coach Joe Mercadante called a “special weekend.” Stetson is led by first year head coach Steve Trimper, and saw three of their players drafted over the weekend. It’s safe to say the Hatters are entering super regional weekend with as much momentum and as loose of a clubhouse as any other team still standing in the country.
“The team really fed off the energy from the home crowd, and the city did a great job of embracing the opportunity [to host], even in games that didn’t involve Stetson,” Mercadante said.
In a quick interview after Stetson’s first practice on Wednesday in Chapel Hill, Mercadante mentioned team intensity and energy as a main contributor in reaching this point in the postseason. “Guys understand that it’s about making plays and doing whatever it takes to win,” Mercandante said. “It’s neat to see guys playing fearlessly and not being afraid about where the fence is or what may happen.” Mercadante mentioned that “selling out” has been a huge part of the team’s mentality recently, which was on display with a few key defensive plays that gained traction across social media and even appeared on SportCenter’s Top 10 over the weekend. On Saturday night against Oklahoma State, Hatters third baseman Johnathan Meola made a leaping catch in foul territory in the second inning, running at just about full speed. Meaola’s momentum carried him into the Cowboys dugout, where catcher Austin Hale hauled him out.
A few innings later, Hale contributed his own web gem on a backwards, diving catch of a weakly hit foul popup. Hale raced into the expansive foul territory behind the plate at Melching Field and made the catch as he hit the wall of the backstop. Both plays symbolized that “selling out” mentality mentioned by Mercadante, though that defensive effort was expected throughout the season. “If you look back on our season, our defense has been solid all year,” Mercadante said. “Coming into the season we knew we would be as successful as pitching and defense would be. Those guys are doing what it takes to help the team and selling out to make those plays.”
Even after a weekend for the ages, the Hatters are refocusing for what should be a highly competitive weekend series against the Tar Heels. Mercadante likes how his team matches up with the Tar Heels, who he personally has some experience playing against as a longtime assistant at the University of Miami. “They force you to play an all-around game,” he said of the Tar Heels. “If you’re weak in one part of the game, they’ll make you pay for it. But I think we match up well because we defend well, put good arms out there and can make them hit quality pitches.”
Stetson leads the country with a 2.50 team ERA, and has a stable of lethal arms that can shut quality offensive teams like UNC down. Logan Gilbert, drafted #14 overall by the Seattle Mariners on Monday, throws an impressive four-pitch mix with a fastball that tops out in the high 90s and struck out 14 Oklahoma State hitters in the regional opener last Friday. Gilbert will start the Friday game against North Carolina, while Jack Perkins, who posted a 2.34 ERA in over 100 innings this season and was selected by Philadelphia on day three of the MLB Draft, will start Game 2. Joey Gonzalez, Mitchell Senger and Brooks Wilson round out the rest of the pitching arsenal.
Wilson, drafted this weekend by Atlanta in the seventh round, plays both ways but was announced as a reliever. Wilson has primarily pitched in his four years in Deland, and he led the nation in saves this season. Mercadante said Stetson wouldn’t be where they are right now without Wilson’s contributions on both sides of the ball – he’s also hit .307/.418/.469 in 179 at-bats after only registering 19 career at-bats before this season. “He’s a knockdown closer and ended up in the cleanup spot for us. It’s a tough job at this level to contribute in such a major way both ways, and it speaks volumes to the type of player he is and how he prepares. He’ll hit every at-bat he can and throw any inning you need him to.”
Even after an unforgettable weekend, Stetson is still faced with a tough draw against North Carolina this weekend. The Tar Heels cruised through their own regional and entered the tournament as the #6 national seed, and come into the series with one of the top offenses in the country, scoring over seven runs per game this season. This will be the first super regional hosted by UNC since 2013, which is scheduled for Friday through Sunday.
Stetson will be entering the Super with their own momentum, as the Hatters carry an 18-game win streak dating back to mid-April into this weekend series. “This is a great run we’ve been on, but every ballgame we come out to is 0-0,” Mercadante said of the Hatters’ recent streak. “Our guys just know how to bounce back and find different ways to win. We’re just trying to make sure guys are focused, executing and playing our game, which is the only thing we can control.”