Up until a month ago, Chris Mercado had no facial hair.
Now, he receives texts from friends asking what is growing on his face.
It's a Fu Manchu. The stylish moustache has wrapped around his mouth and reached his chin, serving as the rally cap for the coach of the South Nashville Little League All-Stars.
“The power of the Fu,” he explained. “I can’t shave it now.”
After losing to Goodlettsville in the district tournament opener last month, Mercado and his coaching staff decided to hold off on the clippers until the season ended.
Well, the whiskers are getting longer and the season is still alive.
South Nashville needs just two wins to reach the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. The team, based out of Tusculum Elementary School on Nolensville Pike, plays Florida at 1 p.m. on Wednesday in Warner Robins, Ga., in a Southeast Regional semifinal in front of a nationally televised audience on ESPN2.
Look for some gray hairs in the Fu Manchu of Mercado. The 34-year-old’s nerves have been tested by a team on the brink of elimination almost every game.
Filled with players from Nashville, Brentwood, Franklin, Thompson Station, Grassland and Arrington, South Nashville has lost the opening game of the district, state and regional tournaments. South Nashville opened postseason play with a 12-3 loss to defending U.S. champion Goodlettsville, which last summer became the first Davidson County to reach the Little League World Series in 42 years.
One more defeat in the double-elimination tournament South Nashville hosted would have ended the season. But the 12-year-olds strung together four straight wins, including two over powerful Goodlettsville and won the championship. It was payback after Goodlettsville had eliminated South Nashville from the tournament the previous two years.
“This group is really special,” said Mercado, an Overton grad who played at Trevecca Nazarene and coached at Ezell Harding for five years. “This team has everything [Goodlettsville] had [in 2012]. You have to have the stars. Our guys knew they could play better. They knew they could be better than those guys.”
Then they once again showed its resiliency at the state tournament.
After dropping the first game to Karns Knoxville, they won seven games over the next seven days. A raucous celebration ensued after a 16-0 whipping of Spring Hill to win the championship and advance to the regional.
“That was a great feeling,” outfielder Conner Smith, who missed the district tournament because of a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, said. “We played great in the two championship games. We played as a team. We fought back from losing the first game, playing eight games in a row. To finally finish it and take home the hardware was a great feeling.”
On Friday, South Nashville began the regional in familiar fashion — with a 3-1 loss to Virginia. After responding the next day with a 17-5 win over Alabama, the team needed to defeat West Virginia on Monday to advance out of pool play. Arrington native Ben Pickman had three hits, Brentwood product Zane Denton drove in two runs and Trae McElemore of Franklin struck out eight in three innings for a 6-4 win.
“We find our spots fighting back,” Smith, a seventh grader from Franklin who attends Brentwood Academy, said. “We’ve done it this whole time. I don’t know if we like the pressure we get on us. I have no idea. It works for us.”
The rise to prominence has been quick for South Nashville, which was started three years ago by Mercado and his brother Tim. Mercado, who also serves as the vice president, said the success of Goodlettsville last year helped educate area residents about Little League opportunities nearby.
“When Goodlettsville made their run it really opened the eyes of people in Little League around town,” Mercado said. “We knew we had a lot of talent going into this year, coming to play. We knew we’d have a chance to make a run at it.”
After next season, though, Mercado worries if South Nashville will have the chance to make another run.
Tusculum Elementary School is planning to build its new school where the baseball fields are currently located. There have been no discussions on a new home and Mercado fears the league might fold.
“We might be losing our whole league in the next year,” Mercado said. “We don’t know what is going to happen to tell you the truth. They are not going to build us a new field so we have a place to play. So it is like what we do? I guess the league is just gone. For us to make this run like this could actually save our league. I don’t know. … We worked so hard to get it going. Now we don’t have a choice. There is nothing we can do to keep it rolling.”
For now, Mercado and South Nashville are focused on the present.
A win Wednesday propels them to the championship game on Friday against either South Carolina or Virginia. After Davidson County went more than four decades without a team in the Little League World Series, two more wins and the county will have a representative in the 16-team field for the second straight year.
And Mercado wants his newfound facial hair to keep growing even if that means a gray hair every now and then.
“They don’t want to go home,” he said laughing. “They love to play every day. Even if we took a day off, the kids want to go hit. They want to practice and they want to get better. They have so much fight behind them. They’re really talented players.”