Taber Mongero’s introduction to college baseball was rather abrupt.
As a freshman for mid-major Gardner-Webb, he wasn’t eased into the action like most first-year players would be. His debut also came on a larger-than-expected stage as the Runnin’ Bulldogs opened the year with four games at Wake Forest, including a doubleheader against the hosts.
“Showing up to the field, I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m about to play against some pretty well-known schools,’” Mongero recalled. “It was a surreal feeling, but once I got out there and made the first play, I realized it was still baseball just like I’ve done my whole life.”
And just like he did for four years at North Hall High, Mongero provided a steadying presence in the infield and a reliable bat anywhere in the lineup, even as a freshman.
Mongero started 47 games and appeared in seven others for Gardner-Webb, finishing with a .245 batting average, five doubles and 12 RBIs. While splitting time between shortstop and second base, the son of former Trojans coach Trent Mongero committed just six errors and contributed to 21 double plays.
Though he made the transition from high school to college look easy, Mongero — who was a key piece of North Hall’s 2017 state championship, its first in program history — still needed some time to get acclimated to his new lifestyle.
“You start in August and go until May, so it’s a grind for all those months,” he said. “Every day you’re doing something, whether it’s lifts, practices or games. Especially when you’re in-season, it turns into a grind.
“We’re usually playing four out of seven days, so it’s really important to take care of yourself, otherwise it can tear your body down. It’s fun, but it’s a grind. College ball is a different animal.”
Yet Mongero quickly tamed it, despite some struggles against college-level pitching in fall practice.
Those issues were long gone by the time the season rolled around, and the former Trojans star boasted a .364 batting average 15 games into the year. The early hot streak prompted coaches to move Mongero from the back of the order to leadoff hitter, a spot he manned for his final three years at North Hall.
But he recorded only five multi-hit games the rest of the season, sliding into a slump that sent him tumbling back down the lineup.
“Leadoff in college is not the same as it is in high school or even hitting at the back of the order in college,” Mongero said. “It was a little intimidating and tough at first. I got used to it a little bit, but my coach realized that as a freshman, I’d be better off at the eight- or nine-hole again.”
Mongero also experienced some shuffling in the field, where he opened the season at shortstop before shifting to second base during the last weekend of March.
He said he switched to the position he played as a freshman in high school because coaches “wanted the most athletic defense we could have on the field.” That meant fellow freshman Ben Laspaluto filling in at shortstop, an alignment Gardner-Webb stuck with for the rest of the year.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether I play shortstop or second,” Mongero said. “We made that change and realized it was the best lineup for our team. I’m OK with playing second to help better our team.”
The 2017 North Hall graduate gave the Runnin’ Bulldogs a lift no matter where he played.
Gardner-Webb improved by six wins this season and exceeded preseason expectations by finishing fifth in the Big South Conference. With an overall record of 31-27, the Runnin’ Bulldogs reached the conference tournament semifinals, where they were eliminated by eventual champion Campbell.
But the program still captured a pair of prominent pelts, picking up a 6-3 win against Wake Forest to wrap up opening weekend and a 1-0 victory against super regional host North Carolina in mid-March.
“Even though Gardner-Webb is a bit smaller of a Division I school, we felt like if we played our best then we can hang with anyone,” Mongero said. “Those two games, we went out and did our thing, and it paid off. When you play those teams, you want to give them your best shot.”
Those two wins have Mongero convinced big things are in store for the team he described as young but streaky, and he’s doing his part to make sure that happens.
Not even a week after Gardner-Webb’s season ended, Mongero moved to Charlotte to join the Carolina Vipers of the Southern Collegiate Baseball League. Like most rising sophomores and juniors, he headed to the summer league with a training plan from his college coaches.
Mongero’s directives: improve hitting for power and put on weight.
He hopes to bulk up from 150 pounds to 160, which requires plenty of eating and weight training as he plays five days a week throughout June. While most players compete in summer leagues until the end of July, Mongero will return home to spend that month solely focused on gaining weight.
“It’s not much of a break,” Mongero said with a chuckle.
Then it’s back to the season-long grind, starting with fall workouts and practices as the former Trojan looks to build on his stellar freshman campaign.
“In the next couple of years, we can do something special,” Mongero said. “I’m looking forward to what’s to come.”