Confidence is key
Kevin Merrell considers himself a confident baseball player who doesn’t fear failure.
As the clear offensive leader of the Bulls (28-5) and a 2017 midseason First-Team All-American, Merrell isn’t often confronted with failure on the diamond these days.
But that doesn’t mean he’s always been fearless.
“I was really nervous going into (my first game as a Bull),” Merrell said. “I’ve always been confident, but when you have some success, you definitely gain a lot of confidence. So, getting off to a good start in that game was a good help.”
In what was both coach Mark Kingston and Merrell’s first game with USF, the Bulls knocked off No. 17 Cal State Fullerton 2-1 on Feb. 13, 2015.
Merrell, who went 2-for-4 with a run scored, was the only USF player with a multi-hit game.
“He started from day one, and that first game we played against Cal State Fullerton, he had a really positive impact on us winning that game, and the rest is history,” Kingston said.
Merrell’s journey to that first game at USF began in a way most younger siblings spend their childhood — an emulation of his older brother.
With a father who played college baseball at Florida Southern and Merrell’s brother, Tripp, on his way to playing for Webber International, Merrell was immersed in baseball from the start.
“They’re the reason why I play baseball, my dad and my brother, for sure,” he said. “Growing up watching my brother play, he’s the reason I bat lefty, because I used to stand across from him. He would bat righty and I would be on the other side batting lefty, doing the same things.”
When Tripp began to play for Webber as a freshman out of Sickles High School in 2010, it motivated Merrell to push himself to follow in his footsteps, and he did just that.
Since that first game for USF, Merrell has led the Bulls in hitting each season and has moved from left field to second base, and now finally to his favorite position, shortstop.
It didn’t take long for Merrell, now a junior, to settle into the leadoff role for Kingston.
“He just makes it easy for everyone else,” sophomore center fielder Garrett Zech said. “I mean, him at the leadoff position is a spark for our team every single game. We get that first guy on and everything breaks open for our offense.”
In 2017, Merrell is not just the only Bull to be hitting over .400, but his .425 average through 30 games is .27 points higher than the next-best hitter in the AAC. He was also recently named to the watch list for the 2017 Golden Spikes award, presented annually to the best overall collegiate baseball player.
He’s missed just three games this season, but Kingston said Merrell’s absence is felt whenever he can’t suit up for the Bulls.
“It was a little harder for us to score when he was out of the lineup just because his on-base percentage is so high, and when he’s on base, he can steal,” Kingston said. “So, it was harder for us to score when he was out. We had guys who filled in and did fine, but Kevin’s a special player.”
Aside from his team-leading batting average, Merrell also leads USF in hits (51), runs (31), triples (3), walks (21), steals (17), and he even has the least strikeouts among regular starters (14).
He’ll have a year of eligibility left after this season, but Kingston can’t say for sure if his leadoff hitter will be back for his senior season.
“Yeah, no doubt, I think he’s going to be a good draft choice this June,” Kingston said. “I think he’s going to have a big decision to make on whether he should move on.
If he’s drafted high enough, we’ll support him moving on to the next level because he’s put in so much work and he’s been so good for us. So, we’ll help him with that process, but I think there are a lot scouts at this point that are very intrigued by his abilities.”
Though it’s easy to see how Merrell has progressed simply by looking at the box scores, his maturation into a veteran leader on a team full of fresh faces is what truly sets him apart.
USF finished 34-26-1 and qualified for the NCAA Tournament in Merrell’s freshman season, but struggled mightily in 2016. With freshmen making up roughly half of the roster, the Bulls stumbled to a 24-33 record and the bottom of the AAC.
Despite being just a sophomore, he was one of only three starting position players who had played college baseball before.
“I was still trying to figure out how to be a leader, I think we only had a few seniors last year,” Merrell said. “It was different, there were more freshmen than there were upperclassmen. Going into sophomore year, it was tough. It definitely built some character. Last year was pretty miserable, but it just makes the wins so much sweeter this year.”
But even though the Bulls struggled, Merrell’s confidence never wavered. He finished the season batting .320, .49 points higher than the next-best Bull.
He established leadership through example that season according to teammates, and he’s carried that over to 2017. But although he doesn’t need to be loud to lead, it doesn’t mean he keeps his emotions in check all the time.
“He’s pretty soft-spoken and consistent with his attitude, but if something doesn’t go our way and he thinks it should have, he’ll be the first one to jump in and give his input,” Zech said. “Or if someone gets a big hit, he’s the first one off the bench cheering him on.”
Merrell’s time with the Bulls may be coming to an end soon as scouts begin to tune in to his scorching-hot season, but he said he plans on keeping the same mindset wherever he goes.
“That’s the thing about baseball, it’s one of those games were you’re going to deal with failure a lot,” he said. “I was fortunate growing up to have coaches who told me that. It’s like, ‘If you hit three out of 10 times, you’re going to be in the Hall of Fame.’ The best players don’t forget that, they’re confident all the time. Whether they get a hit or don’t get the hit or make an error or make the play, you’ve got to be confident. If you’re not confident, then that’s going to catch up to you.”