07/14/05 — Local trio to play baseball at MOC

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Local trio to play baseball at MOC

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on July 14, 2005 1:47 PM

Two former area baseball players are coming home, while a third has decided not to leave his own backyard.

Erik Lovett and Graham Wooten, who helped lead Louisburg Junior College to back-to-back Region X titles, and Eastern Wayne graduate Jesse Lancaster have signed national letters of intent to play at Mount Olive College next fall.

Lovett and Graham helped the Hurricanes post a 49-13 record and finish No. 6 in the final National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association Division I poll.

Lancaster earned the 2005 News-Argus Player of the Year award after helping Eastern Wayne advance to the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 3-A playoffs. Lancaster fashioned a 1.03 ERA and batted .348 for the Warriors, who finished among the top three teams in the Eastern Carolina Conference for the fourth consecutive season.

"I definitely wouldn't say it was easy ... an awkward decision," said Lancaster, who drew considerable attention from East Carolina late in the high school season. "The whole stadium and atmosphere ECU provides, the opportunity to play Division I and the chance to go Omaha -- all that was pretty intriguing."

As if the lure of one Division I program wasn't enough, UNC Wilmington and Campbell University also courted Lancaster. But daily conversations with his father, Carl, and thoughts about his future in baseball turned Lancaster toward the Division II program.

East Carolina coach Randy Mazey said that Lancaster could pitch and possibly play second base, but Lancaster didn't share Mazey's optimism. Plus, he compares playing for the Trojans as internship toward his ultimate goal -- returning to baseball as a coach on some level after he graduates.

"Mount Olive is my own job to take," said Lancaster. "I feel like I can pitch on the weekend, step in and make a contribution pretty quick. One thing that Mount Olive had over the others was I can play for my dad. He was split in being a father and a recruiter. It was a tough decision and he wanted me to do what was best for me.

"I felt like I made the right one, but if I wanted to go to ECU or Wilmington, he would support me. But college ball is college ball. If I deserve to be playing, I will be. If not, I won't."

San Diego drafted Lovett after his freshman season at Louisburg and put him in their "draft and follow" program. Within the next few months, Lovett verbally committed to North Carolina State.

All that changed.

"I got a new scout midway through the year," Lovett said. "He was a younger guy, but we weren't close like me and the other scout."

Lovett failed to complete the hour requirements to transfer to N.C. State, but never thought his collegiate career was done. Throughout his senior season at Southern Wayne, Lovett talked with numerous Division II and III coaches, and kept in contact with one -- Lancaster -- during his junior college stint.

"I figured somebody would contact me, but I didn't know who," said Lovett, who played outfield at Louisburg. "I've always been close with Coach Lancaster and I've been playing with Jesse since we were real little. It's close to home and we've got a good team coming in.

"I'm ready to start again ... hitting and playing every day. I know mom (Millie) and dad (Jimmy) are happy. They want whatever I want ... what is best for me."

Wooten, like Lovett, couldn't resist coming home. An Eastern Wayne graduate, Wooten turned down a full scholarship to Columbus State (Ga.) University, a member of the highly-competitive Peach Belt Athletic Conference.

Lancaster kept a watchful eye on Wooten during his senior prep season and short career with Post 11. Once Wooten finished helping Louisburg repeat as Region X champion, he knew he belonged just a 15-minute drive from his own backyard.

"Coach recruited me in high school, but Louisburg was the best idea for the first two years," admitted Wooten. "(Coming home) was definitely the best thing for me because of the location and Coach Lancaster is an awesome coach.

"They've got a great program. I'm ready to jump in there and do my best."

Wooten is expected to contribute at first or third base, and possibly hit among the top of the order. He's not sure how he will adjust to hitting against Division II pitchers, who normally have a variety of pitches in their repertoire.

But like Lovett and Jesse, he wants to help a program that endured an unusual season a year ago.

Preseason injuries and academic problems plagued Mount Olive, which struggled to a middle-tier finish in the Carolinas-Virginia Athletic Conference. The Trojans posted a 26-27 record overall and ended up 1-2 in the season-ending tournament.

Then again, the fun might just be starting for this trio. They join former high school and Wayne County Post 11 teammates Philip Pennington, Josh Carter and Phillip Cunningham. It's the largest group of county players ever assembled on a Lancaster team at Mount Olive.

"I'm very happy with the decision I've made," said Jesse Lancaster. "I knew this was the right one, but it was still very tough to turn down everything ECU and Wilmington offers. Decisions in life aren't always easy, but I know this was the right one.

"I had a whole lot of fun with it."