College baseball -- Trojans' NCAA hopes hinge on conference tourney
By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on April 22, 2004 2:03 PM
MOUNT OLIVE -- Fate dealt the Mount Olive College baseball team a tough hand heading into this weekend's NCAA Division II Carolinas-Virginia Athletic Conference baseball tournament.
The second-seeded Trojans face Erskine (S.C.) College, which beat them twice during the regular season.
"It's the worst draw we could have had, no doubt about it," veteran Mount Olive coach Carl Lancaster said. "They beat us twice down there. Of course, we made a couple of mistakes, but not anything major. With (Jon) Merrell on the mound, I don't think we could have drawn a tougher opponent.
"I can not imagine how they wound up in seventh place."
The teams square off at 10 a.m. Friday on the Duncan Park diamond in Spartanburg, S.C. The winner returns to action Saturday, while the loser fights to stay in title contention late Friday afternoon.
Defending CVAC champion Pfeiffer, the No. 1 seed, opposes eighth-seeded Anderson (S.C.) College. The remaining quarterfinal-round games include third-seeded Coker (S.C.) College against in-state rival Limestone, and fourth-seeded Barton against fifth-seeded St. Andrews.
Double-elimination play continues Saturday at Duncan Park and USC-Spartanburg with the championship scheduled for Sunday. The winner does not receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"It's the worst draw we could have had, no question about it," Lancaster said. "They've got probably the best two-three-four hitters in the conference, when you combine the four. I don't think there is anybody in the league who has four people as dangerous as they are."
Lancaster referred to Anthony Passalacqua, Robbie Knapp and Casey Smith. A senior outfielder, Passalacqua is batting .403. Knapp is hitting a crisp .393, while Smith leads the team with a .418 clip.
The trio has combined for 238 hits, 37 home runs and 164 RBI. They've each started all 54 games for Erskine, which is 30-24 overall.
Lancaster expects to see sophomore right-hander Jon Merrell, who is 5-5 with an earned run average (ERA) of 5.58. Merrell, who hails from Waynesville, has collected 51 strikeouts in 691Ú3 innings.
"They know they can beat us," Lancaster said. "At least we get them early and we'll see what we can do."
Mount Olive (33-15) might not be able to ground the Flying Fleet entirely, but it can surely prevent them from taking full flight in the early innings. Lancaster is depending on Brian Corbett to keep the Trojans close, and hopefully give them a chance to prevail in the latter innings.
Corbett (4-1, 3.76 ERA) will be making his 11th start and 16th appearance overall on the Duncan Park diamond.
"Corbett has to be better than he has been the last two times," Lancaster said. "He's a guy who has to be ready for big games and we have to put it on the guys' shoulders who have done it for us all year.
"He's been battle tested since his freshman year and I hope that he's good."
Corbett hasn't earned a decision since March 20 when the Trojans throttled Belmont Abbey 13-1. A junior left-hander, Corbett is the team leader in strikeouts (72) in 691Ú3 innings on the mound. Opponents bat .255 against the Marion, S.C., native.
Lancaster plans to start Matt Rusch in the Trojans' second game.
"The best thing has been our pitching," Lancaster said. "We counted on it and thought it was going to be our strength at the beginning of the season, but it wasn't.
"However, the last half of the season our starting pitching has been outstanding with Rusch, (Weston) Curles and (Ricky) Duke. That's not saying our young guys haven't been effective, but it was just a little bit of nervousness (in the early season)."
Rusch lost his last outing, a 3-2 decision against Georgia College and State. The New Yorker is 3-2 with 4.14 ERA in 452Ú3 innings of work.
Lancaster plans to throw Duke, if there is a game three. After that, it could turn out to be a pitch-by-committee situation depending on the number of games needed to win the CVAC title.
While the pitching has picked up, the Trojans have fallen off offensively. Seniors Craig Hurba and Stevie Parrish, the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters respectively in the lineup, are doing everything they can each time they step into the batter's box.
"Hurba and Parrish have had phenomenal seasons ... unbelievable and it's almost been too good," Lancaster said.
Parrish, a former Wayne County Post 11 standout, has enjoyed an incredible senior season. The right fielder is ranked eighth nationally in slugging percentage (.861), seventh in home runs per game (0.40), third in total home runs (19), tied for fifth in RBI (70) and fifth in total bases (149). He's among the top 10 in RBI per game with 1.49.
Hurba is among the top 20 in hitting percentage (.794), home runs per game (0.32) and RBI per outing (1.43).
But the rest of the lineup has experienced a "feast or famine" season.
"I would love to know what our batting average is from four to eight, but I bet it isn't even .200," Lancaster said. "T.J. (Fly) is doing well in the nine spot, but there is no one above him consistently on base for him to bring home.
"Simply put, the bottom order hasn't stepped up. These two guys, Hurba and Parrish, are trying their best to get it done and they're not getting anything to hit."
Mount Olive is ranked 27th nationally in runs per game (8.0).
The Trojans undoubtedly played one of the nation's toughest schedules this season. They finished 3-3 against nationally-ranked teams -- North Florida, Pfeiffer, Shippensburg (Pa.) and Augusta State (Ga.) University.
They currently sit fourth in the latest South Atlantic Region poll and are 19th nationally.
Lancaster thinks those credentials could help his team's postseason argument, but fears the Trojans' aspirations took a serious hit Tuesday against archrival Barton College. They left 14 runners on base, seven in the first three innings combined, and suffered a 10-1 loss.
"I think it was devastating in terms of regionals," Lancaster said. "I'm not making any excuses for them. We didn't play with any heart or emotion whatsoever.
"The guys did not respond. (Tuesday) night's game was just as big as our tournament. If they truly have it inside them to make it to the postseason, then by God, (Tuesday) night they knew what they needed to do, but they just went south."
The disappointing defeat left Mount Olive 3-5 in its last eight games. The Trojans missed a chance to gain valuable points in the RPI system, which is the first criteria the regional selection committee views in terms of awarding postseason bids. They also look at conference standings, not the regular season, but how a team finishes in its conference tournament.
Head-to-head results factor into the selection process as well as results against similar opponents.
Mount Olive finished 1-1 against North Florida, 1-2 against Pfeiffer and 1-2 against Georgia State and College. Those teams hold the top four spots in the South Atlantic poll.
Lancaster feels the team must win the tournament to solidify its postseason chances. Anything less, and the committee will more than likely bump the Trojans from the regional field.
"We played the schedule we needed to get ourselves into the postseason," said Lancaster, who has 550 career wins to his credit. "We've had ourselves in position to beat those (regional) teams. We just let up at the wrong time."
The Trojans' last postseason trip occurred in 2000. The team's 33-win output is the most since the 2001 team posted a 37-14 mark on its way to its fourth CVAC Tournament title in six years.
"Every season you have hills and valleys. It's hard to play from start to finish and be the team everybody is gunning at," Lancaster said. "It looks to me we've hit a valley here at the wrong time.
"This team hasn't played hungry in quite a while. It takes a special group of young men to lay it on the line every game. We're not the aggressor any more and we're playing defensively instead of taking charge and making something happen."
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