After an inaugural year in which the Mercer Bears finished seventh in the Southern Conference with a 1-6 record, the third-year program has not yet earned the respect of its peers. The Bears were ranked sixth out of eight teams in the Southern Conference’s annual preseason poll.
The Bears eked out The Citadel by two points while VMI — who also registered only one victory in the conference last year as it finished eighth — remained at the bottom of the barrel according to the league’s coaches. For the Bears’ head coach, Bobby Lamb, the rankings don’t shock him since they’re largely based off last year.
“When you look at last year, that’s about right,” he said. “But hopefully our young men are looking at that and saying, ‘we want to move up a lot higher than that.’ I think there’s a lot of parity in this league, and I think we were so close in a lot of games last year, we can move up the ladder this year with some big wins.”
Offensive coordinator Casey Vogt shared the same sentiment as Lamb; the ranking is indicative of last year’s performance.
“You hate to say it. We only won one conference game last year, so expectations from the conference aren’t very strong, honestly,” he said. “As a coach, we look at how close we were in several of the games we did lose, and we look at it as we have a very bright future.”
The conference’s champion last year, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, found themselves at the top with seven first-place votes. Samford earned the only other first-place ranking, as it finished second. Western Carolina, Wofford, and Furman rounded out the top five.
But the Bears are hungry for more. The low ranking motivates both coaches and players to prove they belong, but the looming concern over the program this past off-season has been the urge to close games in the fourth quarter. After losing five conference games by seven or less points in 2014, the word “finish” permeates the atmosphere surrounding the Homer and Ruth Drake Field House.
“With the close losses last year, we’ve been selling to our team the entire off-season about finishing the drill, finishing the drive, finishing everything we do, that last rep in the weight room,” Lamb said. “The word ‘finish’ has been used a lot, and hopefully in the fourth quarter we can finish some of these games and get a W.”
Ranking low and losing close games, which go hand-in-hand, motivates Lamb, Vogt and starting running back Alex Lakes to prove the Bears can not only compete but win at a high level.
“I think any time you’re ranked low there’s a certain motivation that our coaches have, a certain motivation our team has, to move up that ladder,” Lamb said.
But Lakes knows the Bears are better than their record indicates; he’s driven to make amends for last year’s late-game struggles.
“When you lose a lot of close games, that motivates you in the off-season to come back,” Lakes said. “You know that you’re better than those teams, so we’re going to try to prove it this year on the scoreboard.”
Lakes was one of two Mercer players to earn preseason 1st Team All-Conference after rushing for 1,107 yards and 17 touchdowns on five and a half yards per carry as a freshman. Fellow sophomore Chandler Curtis received the honor as a return specialist and was the second of only three sophomores who earned the recognition.
“It just shows all the hard work that I did,” Lakes said. “The offensive line did a great job last year, offense as a whole did a great job blocking and setting up ways to run the ball so well last year.”
Four other Bears — defensive lineman Austin Barrett, linebacker Tyler Ward, defensive back Alex Avant and punter Matt Shiel — earned recognition on the 2nd Team All-Conference.
The young talent level on the team only bodes well for Mercer approaching this season and into the future. But first, the Bears are aiming to earn the respect of their peers. Even though Lamb believes Mercer is now “on the radar” of other Southern Conference teams, Lakes said respect only comes by winning.
“I feel like teams respect us more now because of what we did and how we played them last year and how close, but we just have to go out and win those games just to earn their respect,” he said. “That will be the only way you get it, just playing hard, and earning it and getting victories.”
Bears motivated to drive past Southern Conference preseason ranking