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Mercer University Appears To Have What It Takes For A Special 2023 Season.

An experienced Contigent Returns Including Eight Starters From the 2022 Squad.

Coach – Brad Ruzzo – 17th season
Conference – Southern Conference
2022 Record – 8-5-6, 2-1-2 in conference
2022 National Ranking – Not Ranked
Five Year Win Total
2022 – 8
2021 – 10
2020 – 4
2019 – 14
2018 – 12
Key Departures

Ousman Jabang – Defender/Midfielder – Played in 65 games with 48 starts over four seasons with nine goals and 14 assists. Scored two goals and contributed five assists during 2022 season. A 2022 Second Team All-SoCon. 2021 First Team All-SoCon. Drafted by Le CF Montreal in the 2023 MLS Super Draft. 2021 United Soccer Coaches All-South Region Third Team selection.

Bryant Jackson – Defender – Appeared in 61 games with 54 starts over four seasons. A four-year starter. Appeared in 19 games with 17 starts in 2022.

Michael Ille – Forward – Played in 85 games with 34 starts over five seasons. Had 18 career goals and six career assists. Appeared in 18 games with ten starts in 2022 with seven goals and two assists.

Kevin Kim – Midfielder – Played in 68 games with 34 starts over four seasons with one goal and six assists. Appeared in 19 games in 2022 with 11 starts with two assists.
2023 Outlook

There is a lot to like about Mercer heading into the 2023 season. The Bears return a deep and experienced roster that includes a number of key contributors on both sides of the ball along with a recruiting class that includes highly regarded transfers graduate student Omar Hernandez and junior Carlos Santamarina who should add an additional dimension to the attack.

Graduate student Dylan Gaither (6g, 10a), a starter the last four seasons and multi-year All-Southern Conference Team selection with 30 career goals and 20 career assists to date, returns to power the attack either up top are in the midfield. Having Gaither back for a fifth season is a big bonus. Junior forward Kadeem Agard (5g, 5a), a two-year starter and 2022 All Southern Conference Second Team selection, will add another potent element to the offense.

Transfer center midfielders Hernandez who had ten goals and ten assists during four seasons at Wake Forest and Santamarina who found the back of the net five times last year at Oral Roberts had productive spring seasons which bodes well for their ability to make an immediate contribution. Sophomore Fernando Arteaga (2g, 2a), a 2022 Southern Conference All-Freshman Team selection who appeared in 16 games last year, is among other returning players with the potential to add punch to the attack up-top or in the midfield.

The midfield projects as a team strength in 2023 despite the departure of Ousman Jabang (2g, 5a) who was a stalwart in the center of the park for the Bears during a four-year tenure in which he contributed nine goals and 14 assists. Senior Nick Wanzer (1g, 1a) and graduate student Liam Coxhead (0g, 1a) who are three-year starters return to add stability and experience in the midfield. Redshirt seniors Angel Gonzalez (1g, 1a) and Natnael McDonald, senior Dalton Reyna, junior Grant Hamilton, and sophomore Tommy Redd (0g, 2a) are among other returning midfielders who will be in the mix in what looks to be a deep midfield.

An experienced contingent returns on the defensive side of the ball. Junior defenders Sekou Agard (2g, 1a), a 2022 All-Southern Conference Second Team member, William Pondeca and Chad Eldridge who have two years of starting experience return to anchor the backline. One of the biggest and most important returning pieces, though, is senior goalkeeper Trevor McMullen who has been the starter between the pipes for the past two seasons.

The pieces are on board and the culture is in place for Mercer to again be very competitive in 2023. The Bears have advanced to the Southern Conference Tournament title game six times including last year during the nine seasons that they have been a member of the conference. They claimed the title in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2021 but lost to number one seed UNCG 2-1 in the final in 2022.

The offensive led by Dylan Gaither has the potential to be balanced and explosive. However, it will likely be Mercer’s play and the level of improvement on the defensive side of the ball that ends up being the X-Factor in regard the level of success the program has in 2023. Defense is where the real jump forward can occur. Last year breakdowns in play on defense, at times during the last ten minutes of regulation, resulted in goals that hindered Mercer’s effectiveness.

Much will hinge on whether or not Mercer can maintain the same level of intensity and grit on both sides of the ball in 2023. Accordingly, look for Mercer’s ability and commitment as a team to put in a full 90 minutes of play on the defensive side of the ball to be a key factor in the level of success they have in 2023.

Mercer looks to be a talented, experienced. and hungry team. Those three factors should make the Bears a difficult opponent to face. Expect a battle within the Southern Conference but a Conference Title and run in the NCAA Tournament are definitely within reach for Mercer in 2023.

Christopher Stepe – Defender – Decatur, Georgia – Decatur High School – Played club for Kalonji Soccer Academy. 2023 IMG National Academy Championships All-Star Team.

Samuel Brokopp – Midfielder – Snellville, Georgia – Brookwood High School – Played club with Kalonji Soccer Academy. Team captain. Named to National Academy Championship All-Star Team.

Trent Murphy – Goalkeeper – Marietta, Georgia – Pope High School – Played club with Southern Soccer Academy MLS Next.

Tomas Morales – Midfielder – Peachtree Corners, Georgia – St. Pius X Catholic High School – Team captain at St. Pious X. All-Region First Team selection and First Team All-State his senior season. Played club for Concorde Fire ECNL. Regional ODP team member.

Carlos Santamaria – Midfielder – Dallas, Texas – Denton High School – A junior transfer from Oral Roberts University where he played in 17 games with 14 starts in 2022 scoring five goals and contributing one assist. Named 2022 Summit League First Team All-Conference and to the All-Conference Newcomer Team. Played two years at Iowa Western Community College.

Omar Hernandez – Midfielder – Dalton, Georgia – Dalton High School – A Graduate Student transfer from Wake Forest University where he played in 70 games with 32 starts over four seasons with 13 goals and ten assists. All-ACC Third Team selection in 2021 and United Soccer Coaches Third-Team All-South Region. Named the Gatorade National Player of the Year and two-time Georgia Player of the Year at Dalton High School.

Ehi Aimiuwu – Forward – Marietta, Georgia – Hillgrove High School – Played club for CF Concorde Fire and Southern Soccer Academy.

Barzee Blama – Forward – Snellville, Georgia – Archer High School – First Team All-County and First Team All-Region at Archer High School. Regional Offensive Player of the Year. Played club for NASA ECNL. ECNL First Team All-American.

Picture from Mercer Athletics

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Posted in 2023 Team Reviews

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