By STEVE KRAH
Embracing the importance of personal relationships and the process, Indiana native Jeff Mercer continues to enjoy baseball accomplishment in Ohio.
Mercer, a 2004 Franklin County High School graduate, is in his second season as head coach at NCAA Division I Wright State University in Dayton.
After leading WSU to a 38-21 mark in 2017, Mercer had the Raiders at 29-13 heading into a May 4-6 Horizon League series against the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Mercer served as an assistant to Rich Maloney at the University of Michigan (2011), Matt Myers at Western Kentucky University (2012-13) and Greg Lovelady at Wright State (2014-16) before taking over the reigns of the RaiderGang when Lovelady took the heading coaching job at the University of Central Florida.
As a power-hitting first baseman, Mercer played two seasons at the University of Dayton (2005, 2007) for head coach Tony Vittorio then two at Wright State (2008-09) for head coach Rob Cooper.
While playing for WSU, Mercer was a two-time all-Horizon League first-team selection at first base. In 2009, he was HL Player of the Year and a Collegiate Baseball Newspaper third-team All-American as he hit .357 with 26 doubles and 74 runs batted in.
As a Franklin Community Grizzly Cub, he learned from three coaches — Mark Pieper, father Jeff Mercer and Brian Luse.
Mercer, 32, credits Pieper for instilling an appreciation for relationships.
“That’s one thing I’ve tried to make a core value and staple of my coaching staff,” says Mercer, who counts Nate Metzger, Matt Talarico, Alex Sogard, mental skills development coordinator Diamyn Hall, director of operations Denton Sagerman and volunteer Jacob Burk among his Wright State assistants. “We have to have personal relationships with our players.
“If you want to bring out the best in them — physically, emotionally, academically and all those things — the core of that is the relationship where you can help them build and grow.”
Mercer, who earned an organizational leadership degree from Wright State in 2009, does not buy into the generation gap excuse.
“I am young — one of the younger (D-I) head coaches in the country,” says Mercer. “I take it a little bit personally when people talk about ‘kids these days.’ You take the time to develop a relationship, the generation of the kid you’re dealing with is no different.
“They need to know that you care. They need to know you’re invested.”
This trust allows Mercer and his staff to drive the Raiders.
“We’re hard on players,” says Mercer. “We push them. We have really high expectation levels.
“But if they knew you have their best interests at heart then they have no problem with that kind of tough love.”
The elder Jeff Mercer, who helped start the Indiana Bulls travel baseball organization and is now assistant superintendent of Franklin Community Schools, passed along his affinity for structure and discipline to his son.
“Everything was always very methodical,” says Mercer. “There was always an organizational plan. I took from that the confidence you have in preparation.
“We recruit a very confident kind of kid. First and foremost that comes from him. There’s only so much confidence we can give somebody. The confidence that comes from preparation can only be earned. It can’t be bought. You can’t pay for it.
“It just comes with time. It made me more confident as a player and as a coach knowing how much time and work we put into it.”
Mercer notes that Wright State has enjoyed much success against highly-ranked opponents and in hostile environments.
“Guys are confident because they know they are prepared to play at that level,” says Mercer, whose team earned two 2018 road wins against No. 20 Louisiana and one triumph against vote-getter Sam Houston State. The Raiders play at No. 29 Louisville Tuesday, May 8.
Mercer says Luse blend qualities from Pieper and his father.
“We played loose and free for him,” says Mercer. “But he also had a feel for the structure and discipline of it. Consequently, we had a lot of success. We were a very good team.
“You learn something from everybody you come in contact with and I certainly learned a lot during my high school time.”
Vittorio, who grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Southport High School in 1984, brought toughness and discipline to his coaching.
“I knew that he cared,” says Mercer, who was a walk-on for the Flyers. “The relationship that I have with him now is really nice. He’s around a lot.”
While Mercer was at Dayton, another coach had a lasting impact on him.
“My relationship with hitting coach Cory Allen really shaped the way I view hitting from a mechanical aspect that I’ve carried forth to this day,” says Mercer. “It was the first time that anyone had discussed biomechanics, centrifugal force and different movements.
“It was an eye-opening experience and it drove me to be a much better player. I wasn’t a very talented player. Understanding a lot of those basics allowed me to have an advantage.”
After transferring to Wright State he formed a personal relationship with Cooper.
“At that point, there was nobody better in my career at making us all feel valued,” says Mercer. “I learned so much about that from him.
“He was the first person that introduced me to the mental game aspect.”
In the years since he played, Mercer has seen the field of mental skills training take off.
“It’s become an industry in and of itself,” says Mercer. “At the time, there was nobody talking about ‘don’t worry about the outcome, it’s the quality of the at-bat. It’s the process over the outcome.’ At the time it was very cutting edge and it was new information for me.
“I was a much better baseball player at Wright State than I was at Dayton
“It was directly attributed to the mental game and understanding that I couldn’t just play with reckless abandon when it came to my emotions. Physically, I could play very hard. But emotionally, there has to be some constraint.”
One of the keys is to know where place the emphasis.
“If I go through the process the right way and I work on things I’m supposed to work on and invest in things I’m supposed to invest in and I have the at-bat I’m supposed to have and putting a good swing on a good pitch, whatever happens from there is completely out of my hands,” says Mercer. “Once I did that I became a much better player.”
Mercer recruits plenty of football and wrestling athletes.
“Their mentality is I can work harder and harder,” says Mercer. “That’s not always effective in baseball.”
In his first season as head coach, he found the mental game to be a bit lacking and he thinks he knows the reason.
“When it comes from the head coach it can become a bit stale because I’m always talking and communicating with players,” says Mercer. “My voice is always heard.
“I like having a big coaching staff and having them deal with each player individually because it keeps things fresh. We need to have multi-faceted relationships.”
Then opportunity knocked.
Hall, who is from nearby Centerville, Ohio, had just ended his collegiate playing career and was looking to find his way in the mental skills field.
The decision was made to bring him on-board as the very first full-time mental skills coordinator in D-I baseball.
“We had a mutual need,” says Mercer of Hall. “He needed a place to begin his career. We needed someone who was a fresh face and had an ability to communicate with young people in an electric way, in an impassioned way. He has a magnetic personality.
“It’s been a beautiful union.”
Hall meets with players as a group and one-on-one, providing his knowledge and helping athletes reach their potential.
“We’re providing the players with the resources to be the best they can,” says Mercer. “It’s really about knowing yourself and what you need to be successful.”
Jeff and is one four boys born to Jeff and Pam Mercer. His mother teaches math at Whiteland Community High School.
Stephanie Mercer, Jeff’s wife, teaches sixth grade at Ankeney Middle School. The former Ohio Northern University athlete is also an assistant boys volleyball coach at Beavercreek (Ohio) High School.
Jeff and Stephanie are expecting their first child — a boy — in the fall.
Jeff Mercer, a 2004 Franklin Community High School graduate, is in his second season as head baseball coach at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. At 32, he is one of the youngest head coaches in NCAA Division I baseball. (Wright State Photo)