11/12/04 — OPINION -- MOC controls its own destiny

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OPINION -- MOC controls its own destiny

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on November 12, 2004 1:57 PM

The Mount Olive College men's and women's soccer teams set a standard in Trojan athletics by capturing the NCAA Division II Carolinas-Virginia Athletics Conference Tournament championships last weekend in western North Carolina. Can the Trojans complete the fall sweep in major sports by taking the women's volleyball title this weekend?

Who knows?

Mount Olive heads into the three-day tournament at St. Andrews as the No. 2 seed -- a spot they've held for three consecutive seasons. Each of the last two years the Trojans have bowed out in the semifinals and watched their national tournament hopes go down the drain. They're in the national picture again and have a strong chance of earning a regional bid, but they still have to produce to make that ultimate fantasy become reality.

The Trojans (24-11) face the Barton-Limestone winner in the bottom half of the 10-team bracket at 11:30 a.m. Saturday. Also in the same draw are third-seeded St. Andrews, last year's CVAC Tournament runner-up, and Coker. Mount Olive finished 7-1 against those teams with the lone loss occurring against St. Andrews.

Injuries slowed the Trojans down the final month of regular-season play, but they appear to be close to full strength.

Liberos Chasity Oxendine and Nikki Murphy, two outstanding defensive specialists, watched from the sidelines during numerous contests in mid-October. Coach Sasha Gutor moved sophomore Aileen Torres from setter to libero and she had two great outings against Lees-McRae and St. Andrews. Murphy has since returned to the lineup, but Oxendine is lost for the season with a stress fracture.

Mount Olive played its final home match without junior hitter/blocker Colby Mangum. The former Wilmington Hoggard standout missed the four-set battle due to an eye infection and was sorely missed in the middle -- especially on defense. Freshman Candice Collins filled the role superbly and blocked well with Heidi Busch, Sam Mitchell and Ashley Napoles.

Mangum is expected to return to the lineup this weekend.

A year ago, Agnes Jankowski said the team "played too nice" and didn't show a killer instinct in too many matches. Admittedly, Mount Olive has experienced the same trouble this season, falling into the trap of relaxing and playing at the other team's level. The Trojans' talent is head and shoulders above anyone in the league. They proved that with a 3-0 sweep against seven-time defending CVAC champ Lees-McRae on Oct. 21.

If Mount Olive can duplicate that intensity, emotion and desire it showed against Lees-McRae, then no one stands a chance of beating the Trojans this weekend. But, if those old worrisome demons surface, then another fateful loss will once again lead to disappointment.

The key is hitting and defense.

Junior setter Sara Christie is fourth in the CVAC in assists per game (11.15) and has done a great job running the team's combination offenses. Most of the opposing defenses have had trouble closing the block, which has allowed the Trojans to post a CVAC-best .293 hitting percentage. Junior outside hitter Heidi Busch, a front-runner for CVAC player of the year, and sophomore Anna Luft have combined for 1,053 kills.

Luft leads the CVAC in hitting percentage (.385) with Mangum fourth (.343) and Busch fifth (.337). Mangum ranks fourth in the CVAC in blocks (179). Luft, Busch and Mitchell have started in all 122 games this season, while Mangum has appeared in 118.

Freshman Sam Mitchell leads the defense with 390 digs, followed closely by Busch, who has improved that aspect of her all-around game. Napoles is third with 307 and Christie is fourth. Murphy, despite missing some matches, is fifth with 248 digs. The Trojans have 2,082 digs as a team.

With all those weapons, it's hard not to imagine that the Trojans are listed as one of four contenders for the CVAC title. Lees-McRae is bidding for its eighth straight automatic berth and is in the same draw with Anderson -- a streaky team that plays scrappy. Also standing in the Bobcats' way could be Pfeiffer, which is just one of two teams to beat them this season.

Mount Olive is sixth in the latest Atlantic Region poll and must remain in the top eight to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The CVAC, Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament winners receive automatic bids. That leaves five at-large bids with two most likely going to the PSAC -- the strongest league in the region.

The Trojans, undoubtedly, have to get the job done this weekend.

Anything less and the team -- again -- just might wonder what could have been.