Long before Kevin Merrell was a promising freshman outfield prospect at USF, he was a curious toddler who, barely even at walking age, already had a mind for baseball.
The short, blond-haired boy would often venture outside his Odessa home and wander around to the side yard where his older brother, Tripp, would be hitting in a batting cage the family had installed.
That, in retrospect, is where Merrell’s career commenced.
Merrell would plop down on a bucket no bigger than himself and watch keenly as Tripp hacked at each pitch that came his way.
One day, the curiosity led to Merrell emulating Tripp. Merrell would stand opposite his right-handed brother outside the cage, lift a bat — that he could barely pick up — onto his shoulder and mimic almost everything Tripp did in stride.
The only difference? Merrell was a lefty.
“It was just like a mirror,” his father, Bud, said with a laugh. “He would sit there and swing it and it was just the cutest thing and the funniest thing to see … I can picture it like it was yesterday.”
Little did they know what was to come.
As Merrell grew older, his talent in the sport did, too.
Like most aspiring players, Merrell started in tee ball at Citrus Park in northwest Hillsborough County before moving to Little League soon after.
Merrell and his Citrus Park All-Star teammates dominated the circuit, winning the region titles in each of their first two seasons.
In 2008, when they became eligible for the Little League World Series at ages 11 and 12, their run of success heightened.
Using its combination of power hitting and pitching, Citrus Park dominated its way through the Southeast regional tournament and finished 5-0.
In the semifinal against South Carolina, Merrell delivered a two-hit gem in six innings of work on the mound.
Two days later, Citrus Park routed Mobile, Alabama for the title to earn a trip to the World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the first for a Florida team since 2003.
“We were so fortunate with the guys we had,” Merrell said. “It was the greatest. Probably one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had, baseball-wise.”
Before the team’s World Series opener against Rapid City, South Dakota, Merrell stood before an ESPN camera in his gold and red Southeast uniform, opened his mouth full of braces and gave the nationally-televised audience a glimpse of who he was.
“Hi, my name is Kevin Merrell,” he said, “and my favorite baseball player is (New York Yankees shortstop) Derek Jeter.”
By the end of the series, Merrell might as well have been a household name just like the future hall of famer.
Throwing like a veteran, Merrell combined with two other pitchers for a no-hitter in four innings.
A few days later, Citrus Park reached the U.S. semifinal against Shelton, Connecticut. It was one of the first instances the team had faced adversity all series.
Trailing 2-1 in the seventh inning, two outs from elimination, Merrell stepped to the plate and delivered a solo blast that tied the game.
His teammates tacked on six more runs for a come-from-behind 8-2 victory, but it was Merrell’s clutch home run that was replayed over and over later that evening on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
“It was crazy. I had never been so pumped up after a home run like that,” Merrell said. “That was cool. That was definitely an awesome experience.”
Citrus Park’s luck ran out two days later, as it fell in the elimination round quarterfinal against Lake Charles, Louisiana to conclude its time in the World Series.
But even the sting of the loss didn’t hinder Merrell’s memories.
“I didn’t think I would ever have a chance to be a part of that,” he said. “Just being with the guys, we had the greatest group of guys. It was so much fun.”
When Merrell entered high school at Steinbrenner High in Lutz in 2010, his abilities quickly caught the eye of the school’s baseball coach, John Crumbley.
Crumbley, who won 575 games and three state titles in 22 years at Jesuit before starting Steinbrenner’s program when the school opened in 2009, had known Bud for years when he was the coach at Chamberlain, and had watched Merrell’s ascent in the World Series.
But it wasn’t his relationship with the family or Merrell’s past performance that made Crumbley consider Merrell for a spot on the varsity team as a freshman; it was his work ethic and athleticism.
“He just led by example and led by his spirituality,” Crumbley said. “He was just always, always positive and happy.”
As the lone freshman at the varsity level, Merrell was instantly given the nickname “Rookie” by his coaches and teammates, and it stuck through the end of his senior year.
Though he did not start much in his first year, Merrell appeared in every game as a defensive replacement or pinch runner, where he first showed off his speed, a skill that carried him through his high school career, including the team’s first-ever district title in 2013.
“You can’t teach speed,” Crumbley said. “You either have it or you don’t. You can teach finer parts of the game. But that elite speed that he came in with was classic. That’s what allowed him to play every game as a freshman and to start in center field as a sophomore, second base as a junior and shortstop as a senior.”
Baseball wasn’t the only sport Merrell competed in. He also dabbled in golf and track and was known by many of his peers for his prowess from three-point range during pick-up basketball games in gym class.
Merrell’s gym coach, Bobby Ennis, once pulled him aside after timing him during a 40-yard dash drill and told him he hadn’t seen anyone run faster since the late Freddie Solomon, a former NFL receiver, who played college football at the University of Tampa.
“He’s just a gifted athlete,” Crumbley said. “Hopefully, the way he helped our program in playing a variety of positions will help his opportunities at the next level and beyond.”
That gift turned into an offer from former USF coach Lelo Prado during his junior season. Without hesitating, Merrell committed and signed with the Bulls his senior year.
When USF opens its season Friday night at Clearwater’s Bright House Field against No. 18 Cal State Fullerton, there’s a good chance Merrell could be in the team’s starting lineup in left field.
But Merrell’s mind isn’t on that. He just wants to continue to improve and, hopefully, one day earn another championship experience, this time in Omaha for the College World Series.
“I love playing baseball and I’m going to do everything it takes to come out here and help the team win,” he said. “If that’s with me on the field, playing the outfield, or if I’m on the bench, cheering my teammates on, that will be it.
“Whatever I can do, that’s what I’m going to do.”