01/30/04 — MOC baseball preview -- Trojans are getting to work

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MOC baseball preview -- Trojans are getting to work

By David Williams
Published in Sports on January 30, 2004 2:00 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Carl Lancaster likes hard work.

The head baseball coach at Mount Olive College appreciates effort on the practice field. And the endeavors of his Trojan baseball team as preparations wind down for Mount Olive's baseball opener with Newberry on Saturday have made him very happy.

The main difference in this year's team and last year's Carolinas-Virginia Athletic Conference regular-season champions is individual effort.

"Last year's team was better than they showed," said Lancaster. "They lacked something -- work ethic. They weren't outstanding students. They didn't practice hard.

"This club is more talented. They go out and do what they need to to be good."

The Trojans were 31-21 last season and won the CVAC with a 17-9 slate, making seven league titles for Mount Olive since 1996. But the real measuring stick of the Trojans' talent is a trip to the NCAA regional tournament, something Mount Olive did five straight times between 1996 and 2000.

The Trojans have been out of the regionals for the last three seasons. With this club, Lancaster thinks that trend may stop.

"So far, this is the best group I've had since Scotty (McKee) and (Garrett) German and those boys," Lancaster said. "They are more competitive simply from their work ethic."

To begin with, the team has performed well in the classroom. Lancaster proudly points to a 2.97 GPA after the first semester.

"If they get it done in the classroom, they'll get it done on the field," he said.

There is a lot to replace -- seven seniors from last year are gone, including the versatile Brad Church (.429, 51 RBI), slugging first baseman Carl Whittington (.333, 34 RBI) and Kevin Kolbeck (.319). Only two position players are back -- center fielder T.J. Fly and catcher Craig Hurba.

But Lancaster's club brings a lot to the table -- both the returning players and the new guys in green.

Hurba is a devastating hitter, batting .356 last season with a team-high nine home runs after a slow recovery from injury. He's completely healthy now and Lancaster will want to keep Hurba's bat in the lineup as much as possible.

"We were fortunate to get him back," said Lancaster. "He's a pro prospect."

Fomer Eastern Wayne catcher Josh Carter has left the team, and Lancaster said freshmen backup catchers Sam Martin and Justin Richardson need to mature fast to prevent Hurba from catching all 56 games.

First base appears to be a platooned spot, with juco Mike Maffucci playing against left-handed pitching and returner Shawn Warner playing against right-handed pitching. Mafucci, from Southeastern Community College, has moved over from third base, while Warner was one of the most improved players on the team over the winter.

Second base is covered by a famaliar face to most prep baseball fans. Allen Thomas, who starred at Charles B. Aycock three seasons ago, is at Mount Olive and will be a versatile tool for Lancaster. The Louisburg College standout tore up the Coastal Plain League last summer and will step in at leadoff for Mount Olive.

"I've wanted him here since he got out of high school," Lancaster said. "He plays great defense and has great range. We only get him for a year, but we expect him to be a major player."

Lancaster is rich in shortstops. Two juco standouts -- Matt Johnson of Gloucester Community College and Bruce Brown of Southeast Community College -- are in uniform, and both are outstanding defensive players. After a stint at Lenoir Community College, J.P. Pullen will take third base. Lancaster compares his hitting ability to Church and said he will hit third in the order.

"Defensively, we should be good," Lancaster said. "If our pitchers keep the ball down and throw strikes, we'll set a school record for double plays."

Fly anchors the outfield, a speedster tho handes the gaps well. Lancaster is counting on Fly to step up his offense after a .270 campaign last season.

Kevin Daniels, who spent a year at Lenoir Community College before transferring, will be in left field. Dan Smith, a junior from Melbourne, Florida, will be in right. Lancaster rates his arm as the best on the team.

"He's a hard-nosed player," he said. "He does it all full bore. He has the chance to be very good."

Charles B. Aycock product Stevie Parrish should begin the year at designated hitter instead of the outfield, but Parrish won all-America designation at DH last season after batting .365 with 51 RBI.

The pitching staff has been helped with the arrival of assistant coach Aaron Akin. A first-round draft pick inthe pro draft a few years ago, Akin brings five years of professional experience to a group that had a 4.78 ERA last year. Lancaster said the pitchers have taken to Akin and are focusing on what he wants them to do.

"He's improved our pitchers, no doubt," Lancaster said. "They are 200 percent better than last season."

The improvement means that instead of having three or four shut-down pitchers as starters and a lot of hopeful relief, Mount Olive now has 12 pitchers that can all give the Trojans a chance to win.

Newcomer Steve Wesley is going to be one to watch. The right-handed Florida product was pitching at the University of Tennessee when he decided to head east to be with Akin, a friend of his from his prep days.

A senior, Wesley has immense mound presence with a fastball in the high 80s. He will compliment Brian Corbett, a returning player with similar power in his fastball, to make a fearsome lefty-righty combination.

Michael Erexson, who starred as a pitcher two seasons ago, is rounding back into form with improved ability to hit his spots and a good changeup. Newcomer Ricky Duke will see a lot of innings, a right-hander with three solid pitches. Lancaster rated him the best performer this spring.

"He should be first out of the bullpen," he said.

Josh Clow, a hard-throwing right-hander that can hit 90-plus with his fastball, is a pitcher Lancaster hopes to see improved decision-making from on the mound. Blake Montgomery, who played last season but really blossomed over the off-season, has "an outstanding fastball with outstanding movement" and should get draft consideration. He may end up as the Trojans' closer.

Eastern Wayne product Alan Fricks has benefitted from Akin's tutelage. The senior should find more consistency in his outings than in previous seasons. Weston Curles should build on his strong freshman campaign.

Another local product wearing Trojan colors is former Aycock pticher Phillip Pennington, who toiled behind two Division I pitchers in high school and saw limited time.

"Philip is going to open up some eyes," Said Lancaster. "Aaron has changed his delivery, and he's throwing the ball without all that elbow pain."

The CVAC's baseball league has undergone a few changes -- most notably the moving of the conference baseball tournament to Spartanburg. S.C. this season after a long run at Wilson's Fleming Stadium.

Lancaster sees the usual group of tough opponents, most of whom have gotten better over last season.

"Pfieffer's got all their pitching back and have offense in the lineup from one through nine," he said. "Barton's not out of pitching. They've got all the defense back and they've got some offense. Limestone's got two outfielders that can kill you."

He also mentioned Anderson and Coker as contending teams. But winning the CVAC is only part of getting a shot at the regionals -- beating quality non-conference opponents goes a long way in swaying poll voters.

So in addition to hosting traditional rivals Lenoir-Rhyne, Shepard College and Shippensburg University, Mount Olive will play host to regional heavyweights North Florida and Georgia College and State University -- both Peach Belt Athletic Conference members and both perennial favorites to make the reigonal field.

In addition, Augusta State and Francis Marion will make trips to Scarborough Field, as well as Shaw, Virginia State and St. Augustine's College.

Lancaster is very confident he has the team to get back to the regionals and make that first-ever trip to the NCAA Division II World Series in Montgomery, Alabama.

"I have as much confidence in this team as I've had in any team that I didn't know," he said. "They go about it every day, they go to work.

"So far, this has been fun for me."