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Thursday, Jun 22, 2017
Sports

The only dirt on USF baseball player Kevin Merrell is ground into his uniform

TAMPA —Forget finding anything unsightly on the Kevin Merrell persona. To make a smudge, one first must have ink, and Merrell possesses none.

At 21, this USF shortstop's angular body remains bereft of tattoos. He's a two-time member of the American Athletic Conference All-Academic team. At 9, he implored his dad to allow him to play on a Citrus Park Little League team coached by Buccaneers chaplain Doug Gilcrease because "Coach Doug prays before every game."

He has Christian-themed walk-up music ("On My Own" by Ashes Remain). And don't bother tracking him down on Twitter; Merrell has long since deleted his account. Too much of a distraction, he said.

"You heard the saying before that you'd like your daughter to come home with somebody like that? That's 100-percent accurate in the case of Kevin Merrell," said John Crumbley, Merrell's coach at Steinbrenner High.

Three years into Merrell's college life, the only dirt affixed to this grandson of a Presbyterian minister is ground into his pants or jersey on a game night.

The most sanitized Bull just might lead the team in clay stains. He also leads it in batting average (.403), slugging percentage (.619) and stolen bases (17 in 20 attempts). He has committed only seven errors, and currently is No. 3 nationally among shortstops in the d1baseball.com power rankings.

MLBPipeline.com currently ranks him 50th among its top 100 draft prospects.

"God's given me speed, so I would say that's probably the thing that my game revolves around," said Merrell, a shortstop and pitcher on the 2008 Citrus Park team that reached the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

"I mean, I don't have a ton of power, even though I guess I've had a little bit this year (five home runs). But God's given me speed, so when I go out here and play I've tried to use it to the best of my ability."

Hence the reason that, once he returns from a foot strain that recently has sidelined him, Merrell will resume leadoff duties for USF (34-10). The fact Merrell gets a de facto head start to first — as a left-handed batter -— is the result of endless swings in the batting cage in his Odessa backyard.

With a bit of fluke tossed in.

Merrell's father, Bud, played at King High and was a center fielder on the 1977 Florida Southern team that won a Division II national title. His older brother, Tripp, starred at Sickles before playing at Webber International.

As a prepubescent, Kevin would stand on the opposite side of Tripp -— a right-handed hitter — and try to emulate his swing in the family's makeshift batting cage.

"And he's looking at his brother hitting right-handed, so he's ... looking at him and he's swinging left-handed, but he's mirroring it," Bud Merrell said. "He's doing everything opposite, left-handed, because he's seeing his brother doing it."

That quirk did nothing to infringe his development.

To the contrary, Merrell was playing on all-star teams with slightly older kids by age 9. He played in every game at second base as a Steinbrenner freshman (when he acquired the nickname "Rookie"), ultimately started at three positions (second base, center field, shortstop) and graduated with a batting average above .400.

For good measure, he fired a 37 in one tournament for the Warriors golf team; and won the Class 4A, District 6 title in the 100 meters (in 10.83 seconds) as a senior. As district champ, he qualified for the region meet but missed it because it conflicted with baseball.

"Speed and hand-eye coordination -— those two together make him what he is, offensively and defensively," Bulls coach Mark Kingston said.

"He's got great hand-eye coordination, which is why he strikes out very little (only 16 times in 139 at-bats) and puts the ball in play hard all the time. And then his speed is what allows his singles to turn into doubles, doubles to turn into triples, and to steal as many bases as he does.

And then defensively as well, his speed gives him plus-range at shortstop, and his hand-eye coordination allows him to make very few errors."

Similarly, he's not likely to flub his future.

Though it goes against his shortstop intuition, Merrell won't charge the draft process. Which is to say, he won't over-think it or place undue pressure on himself. Instead, he'll let it come to him.

It will arrive soon enough. General sentiment is, Merrell could be drafted in the first five rounds in June.

Preceding that could be a memorable April and May. USF, ranked 24th by (ITAL)Baseball America(END), appears poised to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. It enters this weekend's home series against East Carolina tied with four other teams for first place in the American Athletic Conference.

"We have a really good team here," he said. "If we play together and we have each others' back, we can do some great things. We could be one of the best teams in USF history, and that's pretty serious.

"But to answer your question, my dream has always been to play professional baseball."

There it is, Kevin Custer Merrell has come clean.

Squeaky clean.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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