In A New Look SoCon, Can Mercer Take a Step Forward?

(Photo Courtesy of Mercer Athletics)

Coming into the final weekend of the 2021 season, Mercer found themselves in a battle with Air Force and Bellarmine for that fourth and final spot in the SoCon Tournament. Ultimately, the Bears fell to Bellarmine 11-8 in Louisville, marking their second loss to the Knights of the season, and Air Force pulled off an upset, beating Richmond 11-6 to hand the Spiders their first loss of the season and win the battle for that fourth seed in the conference tournament.

Had the Bears been able to come out on top in that battle for fourth place, it would’ve meant their first trip to the postseason since the first season of SoCon lacrosse in 2015. Since then, Mercer hasn’t had too much to cheer about, putting together a combined record of 21-39 ahead of the 2021 season. The only year in which they had a winning record during that time was the shortened 2020 season, where Mercer went 6-1 with their only loss coming against North Carolina.

To many, the success Mercer was able to find during those seven contests in 2020, coupled with Chad Surman being elevated to head coach following Kyle Hannan stepping down last summer, was a clear sign that a new era of Mercer lacrosse was just on the horizon. An era in which the Bears can eventually be perennial contenders in the SoCon.

Well just as this new era of Mercer lacrosse arises, a new era of SoCon lacrosse has arrived. Air Force and Bellarmine have left the conference for the Atlantic Sun (ASUN) while Hampton has joined the conference.

Coming into the 2022 season, Mercer has a very clear opportunity to achieve what they couldn’t last season and get back to the postseason for the first time since 2016. There is a void to fill within the conference and it is the Mercer Bears who look to most capable to fill it.

Now, does that mean the Bears will score a win over one of the conference’s big three (High Point, Jacksonville, and Richmond) and be sure-fire contenders for the SoCon title next season? No, but a win over at least one of the aforementioned three could very well take place. The Bears have not beaten any of the three since 2017, but did score a huge win over Air Force last season and fell to Jacksonville in overtime during their first meeting.

A key point of this Mercer team and their successes, as small or big as they have been over the past few seasons, has been the dominance we’ve seen at the faceoff dot from Ashton Wood. The St. Augustine, Fla. native went 173-for-285 (.607%) at the dot last season while also tallying eight points (5G/3A) and scooping up 104 ground balls. Wood ended the year ranked 11th in the nation in faceoff win percentage and third in ground balls per game (10).

Just as he has been since he stepped foot on campus, Wood is the x-factor for the Bears team. And as long as he can give this offense an edge in the possession battle, Mercer has a chance to win games.

While Wood has been the x-factor for the Bears team over the past few seasons, it’s been attackman Sean Goldsmith who has been the face of the franchise. Goldsmith, who will be taking his talents to North Carolina as a grad transfer following the 2022 season, made headlines during the shortened 2020 season, ending the year as the nation’s leading scorer with 42 points (34G/8A). He continued that same level of success this past season, despite missing the first half of the season with an injury. Goldsmith put up 28 points (18G/10A) in six contests, which included a six-goal, seven-point outing against Utah.

This spring Goldsmith will headline a fairly younger offense than last season with the loss of midfielders Michael Quinn and Will McCarthy to graduation. The Bears also lost Collin Stewart as he has transferred to DII Florida Tech following a strong sophomore campaign in which he was the team’s fifth-leading scorer.

Sophomore attackman Taylor Dooley (14G/7A) is the only other top-five scorer from last season returning. Dooley played in all 12 contests with eight starts and ended the season as the Bear’s second-leading point-getter. Additionally, Mercer will see senior Daniel Shumake (6G/10A), fifth-year returnee Nick Rockefeller (9G/4A), and juniors Kyle Cox (6G/4A) and Jack McGuire (6G/3A) all return and look to step up even further.

Cox and McGuire saw a combined 13 starts at the attack spot last season while Rockerfeller saw just one start in 12 games of action. He enters his fifth year in Macon with 41 games and 11 total starts under his belt as one of the Bears’ most experienced reserves returning from last season.

This offense ranked 36th nationally and fourth in the SoCon in goals per game (10.77) last season while also being fourth in the conference in points per game (17.15) and team shooting percentage (.284%) was the highlight of this team heading into last season, and despite their losses, will be again coming into this spring. With Wood at the dot and a player like Goldsmith running things on offense, Mercer could very well put together another very solid campaign offensively. And perhaps we see them grow even more on that end, especially if Goldsmith is indeed healthy for a full season and the returning young guns from last season continue to progress.

Defensively, things look a little different as the Bears return almost every one of their key players from a year ago on the back end. That includes junior goalie Colin Kelley. The two-year starter returns to anchor this Mercer defense once again, following a 2021 campaign that saw Kelley make 138 saves with a .513% save percentage. He ended the season ranked 18th nationally and first in the SoCon in saves per game (12.33).

Out in front of the cage, Mercer returns three of their top four poles from a year ago in senior LSM Garrett LeClaire (21GB/13CT), as well as junior close defensemen Wesley Chairs (23GB/12CT) and Drew Mayts (6GB/7CT). Danny Walsh, who led the Bears in caused turnovers (14) and was a two-year starter, is the biggest loss at close for this Bears team. He is no longer on the roster.

Following a year in which this unit was pretty average outside of the goalie position, there is a lot of growth that can be had in 2022. That possibility, coupled with the expected success on the other end of the field could very well combine to create a very solid campaign overall this spring.

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