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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

NAIA World Series: Former Ferris pitcher Nick Merkel has Central Methodist eying a national title in Lewiston

A 6-foot-7 frame is even more imposing atop the soft dirt of a pitcher’s mound.

Fastballs also appear to have more zip when they come off the long fingers of Central Methodist junior and former Ferris standout Nick Merkel.

Merkel’s size, arm and lively disposition earned him the moniker of “The Large Mammal” while developing at Community Colleges of Spokane.

When he arrived at a small Missouri university to further his collegiate career, his initial goal was even bigger.

“As soon as I got here I wanted to help get Central Methodist to the NAIA World Series, something it hadn’t done before,” Merkel said. “To come back (to the Inland Northwest) and try and win a national title.”

He checked that box.

Merkel and the No. 2 seed Eagles (46-6) open the NAIA World Series at Harris Field in Lewiston on Saturday, where they will face the winner of Friday’s first-round game between Indiana University Southeast (48-14) and Concordia of Nebraska (42-10).

Family and friends who couldn’t make the 1,660-mile trek to little Fayette, Missouri – a town of 2,700 residents two hours from the closest international airport – can now see him throw live on NAIA baseball’s grandest stage.

Merkel’s former CCS teammate Isaac Wersland – the Sasquatch’s all-time home runs leader – is also in Lewiston. Wersland has 25 home runs this season for No. 4 seed Oklahoma Wesleyan (49-9), which opens Friday against Georgia Gwinnett (46-10).

Tournament host and 18-time national champion Lewis-Clark State (41-4) is the No. 3 seed and opens Friday against Faulkner (38-10), a private university in Alabama.

Merkel brings one of the top arms to the NAIA World Series, ranking second nationally in wins with 12 while posting a 1.96 ERA.

The right-handed junior recently earned Heart of America Conference Pitcher of the Year in a season that includes 113 strikeouts while yielding just 18 earned runs in 82 innings.

CCS coach Bryan Winston isn’t surprised by Merkel’s success.

“He throws it hard and never throws it straight,” said Winston, referencing Merkel’s slider and cutter pitches. “It’s a very difficult at-bat. He’s a stud.”

Ferris wasn’t particularly dominant in the Greater Spokane League when Merkel was on the roster, winning roughly 20 total games in his three varsity seasons, but Merkel’s arm had promise.

He signed with NCAA Division I Seattle University, but returned to Spokane after his first semester and enrolled at CCS, where he developed on a successful Sasquatch team that placed third at the NWAC Tournament in both of his seasons.

“(Merkel) was big, had bleached hair,” Winston said. “He made pitching cool. We had a good pitching staff.”

After posting a 5-3 record as a sophomore at CCS with a 4.37 ERA and 61 strikeouts and 15 walks in 68 innings, he yielded mostly small school recruiting interest.

Some Division I schools came calling, but Merkel would have had to earn his associates degree at CCS to be eligible to transfer to that level. A few credits short, Merkel decided to go the NAIA route.

And far away from home.

“I just wanted to get away. See a different part of the country,” Merkel said. “This was an opportunity to do that.

“It’s good baseball here. This is an up and coming program and we have fun. It’s higher intensity than West Coast baseball.”

Merkel’s first year at Central Methodist was thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic, but he was granted an additional year of eligibility and plans to return as a fifth-year senior next spring.

With the MLB draft being cut down to 20 rounds this year, he doesn’t expect his name to get called. The previous MLB draft had 40 rounds and 15 players from NAIA schools were selected.

“I’m just trying to enjoy the last little bit of baseball I have left,” Merkel said.