When it comes to scoring goals early in games, no team is better in the Southern Conference than the Mercer Bears — and it’s not even close. Over the course of a regular season in which the Bears went 12-6 (7-3) and earned the second seed in the SoCon tournament, Mercer found a knack for jumping on top of opponents early.
The Bears boast the four fastest goals in the conference this year and six of the fastest eight: Will Bagrou (0:26), Jake Mezei (1:23), Bagrou (1:30), Conner Antley (1:32), Ian Antley (2:24) and C. Antley (6:43). Five of those six goals have come in Macon, a place where head coach Brad Ruzzo said the team comes out with a lot of energy.
Redshirt junior midfielder Conner Antley attributes the large amount of quick goals to the pressure the Bears put on teams early in outings.
“Our home games, especially, our coach puts an emphasis on starting quick, starting fast, getting on top of the team early, getting the ball in their half and pressuring the defense early and making it difficult for their goalie to deal with things,” he said. “Coach has been stressing us all year, ‘Pressure makes great players good, good players average and average players really bad.’”
And that strategy has reaped success for Mercer.
In games where the Bears have scored first, Mercer is 12-2 with the lone losses to Georgia Southern (Sep. 17) and ETSU (Oct. 29). Ruzzo said scoring first is extremely important, as supported by statistics.
“If you look across anything in Division-I men’s college soccer, it’s that if you score first, basically your winning percentage is .800,” Ruzzo said. “You score first, it makes the other team kind of press more, maybe do some things they’re not used to doing to get back in the game.”
Having to get back into the game has been a rare problem for Mercer this season. The Bears have scored first in 14 of their 18 contests. Bagrou, who leads the team with eight goals, said scoring that first goal gives the team momentum for the rest of the game.
“You have a foot ahead of everyone else, and that’s just what we try to do,” Bagrou said. “First fifteen minutes, we always say, ‘Impose your will; impose your will. Go for the kill.’”
Bagrou has wasted no time sending opponents to their maker; he’s responsible for two of the three fastest goals in the conference, including the quickest — a strike only 26 seconds into a 2-0 victory over Wofford Sept. 27.
The junior forward will have another chance to face the Terriers Thursday Nov. 10 at 6 p.m. in the Semifinals of the SoCon tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Bears own a 2-0 advantage over Wofford this season and will be looking to avenge a semifinals loss to Furman last season.
“Our team truly believes we have the best team in the Southern Conference, no doubt, regardless of who we play, whoever we meet in the semi-finals or whoever we meet in the finals when we get there,” C. Antley said. “We have no doubt that we can win this whole thing and get into the NCAA Tournament, whether it be through the Southern Conference tournament or have an at-large bid.”
Mercer was in a similar position last season, entering the Semifinals with an 11-5-3 record as it faced Furman. The Bears would ultimately lose that game in penalty kicks, a loss C. Antley said still lingers on the minds of many of the players on the team.
“The next day we were turning in our gear, and I think that kind of is riding on our shoulders a little bit, because we don’t want to do that,” C. Antley said. “We don’t want to turn in our gear early.”