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Mercer County Community College baseball earns No. 2 National ranking faces rival Lackawanna Saturday

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Hunting for the first National Championship in school history Mercer baseball (29-4) has jumped up a spot to no. 2 in the national rankings released by the National Junior College Athletic Association today.

Mercer did not receive any of the 10 first place votes which were divided by top ranked Jones County Junior College of Mississippi (36-6) with 9 votes and one vote for no. 3 Mesa Community College of Arizona (40-11), according to the NJCAA.

Mercer has won 10 of their last 11 games entering a week that culminates with a doubleheader against vaunted rival Lackawanna College on Saturday.

The Falcons of Lackawanna have derailed Viking playoff runs the last three consecutive seasons including last year’s 6-5 victory bouncing Mercer from the Region 19 Tournament.

The Vikings carried momentum into last year’s Region 19 tournament winning 8 of their last 10 regular season games including a doubleheader sweep of Lackawanna winning 6-4 and 6-3 respectively. But 13 days later Lackawanna bested the Vikings when it mattered most, ending their season….again.

This is a “rivalry that is discussed throughout the offseason” according to tri-captains Ben Stine and Mark Tomei. Tomei understands the Vikes need to not only win the regular season games but the postseason matchups against Lackawanna  telling The VOICE, “I’m 100% confident we will beat Lackawanna everytime we play.”

Mercer began the year by rattling off 17 wins in their first 18 games, vaulting them to the top five of the polls in Div. II of the NJCAA. The Vikes success has been bolstered by the performance of the pitching staff lead by sophomore standouts Heath Fillmyer and Ben Stine.

That staff, comprised of six sophomores and eight freshman ranks 10th in the nation in earned run average with a team ERA of 2.79.

Fillmyer, the 829th overall pick in last year’s MLB Amateur Draft, has been dominant as a pitcher this year, posting an undefeated 7-0 record.

The 19 year old has used his 96 MPH fastball to baffle batters allowing only two earned runs through 43 innings pitched this season. His 66 strikeouts on the year rank 6th in the nation.

Catcher Dave Osnato told The VOICE about Fillmyer’s focus. “When Heath throws, he wants to prove the point that he’s one of the best pitchers in the country. And I think he’s one of the best….I mean the kid was drafted after pitching only eight innings last year.”

Ben Stine has been equally dominant on the mound starting 6-0 with 40Ks in 48.2 IP. The sophomore tri-Captain and North Hunterdon grad has shown durability, especially recently, throwing complete games in three of his last five starts.

Stine’s ERA is ranked in the top 50 in the country at 1.66, and has allowed one run or less in six of his eight starts this season. Stine says he wants to be aggressive with hitters: “when I get ahead in the count, I want to finish them myself.”

The Vikings offense has equaled the output of the pitching staff ranking second in the country in team batting average at .359, with 234 runs on 327 hits.

Coach Kevin Kerins was pleased with the team’s start saying, ”This is our second recruiting class in our system under this coaching staff and we have done a very good job finding the right mental make-up, personalities and talent to fit our style of play.”

Dave Osnato has been a catalyst offensively for the Vikings hitting .427 this season,  20th in batting average nationally, and the freshman leads the team in all power categories with 5 homers, 27 RBIs, and his .667 slugging percentage is in the top 30 in the country.

Freshman outfielder Joe Santospago is the team’s best hitter. Santospago is 11th in the country in batting average hitting .449, with a .480 on base percentage. He is also third on the team with 24 RBIs.

With six games remaining on the schedule it hasn’t been all chest bumps and dogpiles for the Vikings in 2014. After returning from the Myrtle Beach Invitational and earning the number four national ranking, Mercer lost the second leg of a doubleheader against winless Sussex,and then lost again in their next matchup to mid-level Cecil College of MD.

Stine explains, “after we came out with the number four ranking, I think some of the team was on their heels and we lost a game to an 0-12 team.” He added, “I think some of us thought we were hot shit and that we weren’t going to lose.”

After a fiery postgame speech from 3rd year skipper Kerins, Stine said the team regained their focus. “I actually think those two losses were a little wake up call. We’re gonna have to learn quickly now that we are in the region schedule and we need to learn how to win these games.”

Mercer looks to stay hot as they begin the week by traveling to Churchville, MD tomorrow for a double dip against Harford, followed by Monroe at home Thursday before heading to Scranton to face Lackawanna Saturday.

Dave Osnato made it clear the Vikings have a singular goal, “all we want is to be ranked number one when the season is over.”

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