02/03/06 — MOC baseball preview -- A season of 'firsts' for Trojans

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MOC baseball preview -- A season of 'firsts' for Trojans

By Gabe Whisnant
Published in Sports on February 3, 2006 2:27 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- In his 20th year at the helm of the Mount Olive College baseball team, it will be a season of several "firsts" for coach Carl Lancaster.

The Trojans' 2006 roster includes a total of seven players from Wayne County, the most Lancaster's ever coached at MOC, and the list reads like a county All-Star or American Legion team from the recent past.

Catcher/designated hitter Josh Carter (Eastern Wayne), and pitcher Philip Pennington (C.B. Aycock) enter their junior seasons and figure to play prominent roles once again. Erik Lovett (Southern Wayne) and Graham Wooten (Eastern Wayne), both Louisburg College transfers, are also shaping up to be opening-day starters and each has worked in the preseason in the outfield and first base.

Left-handed pitcher Joey Raczkowski (Eastern Wayne), comes in as a junior transfer from Belmont Abbey. The southpaw is battling some tendonitis, but Lancaster believes he has the potential to be a "weekend starter," while sophomore righty Phillip Cunningham (C.B. Aycock) is still suffering some arm problems as well, but could offer some relief work in the early-going.

Freshman Jesse Lancaster, Carl Lancaster's son, is coming off of a strong senior season at Eastern Wayne, and seems to be over the inflammation in his rotator cuff that hindered him late in the spring and into the offseason. Lancaster is currently on a long-toss program with hopes to build up his velocity.

"With all of these local guys, we ought to be able to get some people out to the ballpark," said Lancaster, who has 580 wins in 19 seasons at MOC.

Another first is the amount of transfers on the Trojans' roster. Twelve total players, including one redshirt, have joined Mount Olive from other programs as Lancaster felt it was important to "retool" a team that finished a disappointing 26-27 overall and 12-12 in Carolinas-Virginia Athletic Conference play in 2005.

Along with Raczkowski, Paul Buhrow (Jr., Sunrise, Fla.), Ted Pelech (Jr., Vilna, Alberta) and Patrick Ball (Fr., New Bern), headline the newcomers on the mound. In the field, four Canadian transfers, infielder David Cooper and outfielders Kyle Curtis, Mike Kicia and Tim Morgan all have the potential to start every day.

Lancaster seemed especially high on Cooper and Curtis, but Curtis is currently battling some unexpected eligibility issues, which Lancaster hopes will be resolved early in the season.

Yet another first, not just for Mount Olive but for the rest of the CVAC, is the conference tournament champion will receive an automatic bid this year to the NCAA South Atlantic Regional as the regional field was expanded from four teams to six. On top of that, former Division II and Peach Belt Conference powers, Kennesaw State and North Florida, have now moved up to Division I -- leaving the door open for more of an opportunity for an at-large berth for CVAC teams.

The lineup

With so many new faces, Lancaster admits the starting lineup and batting order has the potential to change consistently, especially in the early going.

The Trojans, picked to finish second in the CVAC, are deep, but one position, catcher, seems to be the current lone question mark.

Last year's starting catcher, Dustin Richardson (Jr.), will be out for at least the first few series after recent surgery on his catching hand, while freshman Zach Walden out of Georgia isn't ready to start.

Carter is coming off of arm surgery last summer, and Lancaster likes him more as a designated hitter and first baseman, especially early in the season. Stephen Nordan (Jr.) has experience behind the plate, but Lancaster would prefer to use him at third base.

Carter and Nordan, two of the top 10 hitters in the conference last year, were both All-CVAC and all-region selections in 2005.

"The catching deal has us in a bind. If that works out, I think we can have a fine ballclub," Lancaster said.

Going around the infield, the power-hitting Lovett played a lot of right field at Louisburg, but should get a lot of work at first base for the Trojans. Senior Lance Martin hit over .400 last year and has continued to hit well in the preseason. Martin started at shortstop last year, but will move to second base with Cooper's emergence at short. When Nordan goes behind the plate, Martin will likely go to third. Anthony Williams (So.) started nearly every game as a freshman and should again push for playing time in the infield.

Wooten, who is also working at first base, may be the fastest player on the team and looks to be a natural fit to play left field. Kicia and Morgan are battling for the center-field spot, while Lancaster is hoping to have Curtis in right.

"If Curtis can play, we could have one of our best three, four, five and six hitters we've ever had with Nordan, Carter, Lovett and Curtis," he said.

The arms

Most Division II programs could only dream about the amount of pitching depth Lancaster has assembled this year.

Six-foot-seven right-hander Justin Staatz, an All-CVAC and All-Region selection last year, returns after a sophomore year that saw him lead the conference in earned run average (2.30) and finish among the national leaders with 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Pennington finished right behind Staatz with a 2.55 ERA and was 6-1 on the year on his way to a second-team CVAC selection.

Pelech, a lefty, may have the best "stuff" on the team and is a seasoned pitcher. According to Lancaster, the sky is the limit for Buhrow, another transfer. New Bern native Patrick Ball joins the club after going to N.C. State last year. Ball, a righty, didn't see the field for the Wolfpack, then made the move to Mount Olive, who also recruited him out of high school.

"He's (Ball) got life on his ball, but he's behind a little. We've got to bring him along slow," Lancaster said. "If he and Jesse (Lancaster) come along, they could be the best freshmen we've ever had. But, they've both got to progress first."

Brett Williams, coming off of a solid performance in the Coastal Plains League last summer, as well as Donald Huff and Blake Montgomery, return to the staff for their senior seasons, while junior lefty Weston Curles is coming off surgery this summer and will likely be on the shelf until late March or early April.

Returners Jonathan McClellan, Daniel Wood and Ryan Barham are also still nursing injuries.