04/20/06 — MOC baseball eyeing automatic NCAA berth

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MOC baseball eyeing automatic NCAA berth

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on April 20, 2006 2:09 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- No clear-cut favorite.

Veteran Mount Olive College baseball coach Carl Lancaster offered that simple summation when asked to pick a winner for this weekend's season-ending Carolinas-Virginia Athletics Conference tournament.

Lancaster thinks his Trojans have a chance.

So does regular-season champ Barton.

As does Pfeiffer.

And don't count out Limestone or Erskine.

Any one of those teams, given the right circumstances, could emerge the CVAC champion by late Sunday afternoon on the historic Fleming Stadium diamond.

The winner claims the distinction of earning the league's first-ever automatic bid to the NCAA Division II South Atlantic Regional.

Opening-round play starts Friday morning with regular-season champion Barton, the top seed, facing off against eighth-seeded St. Andrews.

Fourth-seeded Belmont Abbey opposes fifth-seeded Limestone, while second-seeded Erskine squares off against Anderson.

Mount Olive meets sixth-seeded Pfeiffer at 1 p.m. at Barton College. The Falcons (21-33) claimed a pair of one-run victories against the nationally-ranked Trojans (35-12) in early March.

"We didn't play well up there," said Lancaster of the in-state series, which is tied 5-5 over the past three seasons. "Their (overall) won-loss record is not great, but they've played some good people in some close games. To be honest, they scare me a little bit.

"They're a scrappy, solid baseball team with a couple of better-than-average arms."

Mount Olive's arms aren't too bad, either.

Justin Staatz is scheduled to start against the Falcons. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound senior right-hander is 7-4 with five complete games. He's thrown a team-high 70.3 innings and has limited opponents to a .194 batting average.

Staatz won his last start, a 2-1 victory last Saturday at Limestone.

"The first inning is usually Justin's nemesis," said Lancaster. "If he gets through that, he'll be good for us for a few innings. Philip (Pennington) and Jesse (Lancaster) have thrown pitches down in the zone, mixed pitches well and we've played good defense behind them."

Pennington, a former Charles B. Aycock standout, should get the nod for game two. Pennington (5-2, 4.73 ERA) won the Trojans' lone tournament game a year ago. The junior right-hander, who is 12-3 in his career, has started nine games this season and pitched the second-most innings (59) on staff.

Lancaster, a freshman right-hander, has most the victories (six) and owns a 4.08 earned run average. The News-Argus Player of the Year last year, Lancaster is slated to throw game three if Mount Olive survives using its bullpen in early-round play.

"We've got to stay out of the losers' bracket early," said coach Lancaster. "If we can win the first two games, then I feel like we've got an excellent chance. When I look at when we played our poorest/worst this season was when we were a little too emotional.

"It took away our concentration and better judgment on making some plays defensively. That's the thing I'm afraid of the most."

Lancaster is looking for run support, too.

The Trojans have 10 players hitting .300 or higher. Junior first baseman Josh Carter is batting a crisp .402 with a team-leading 58 RBIs. Next is David Cooper, who has started in all 47 games and hits .399 with 20 extra-base hits and 24 RBIs.

Stephen Nordan and Lance Martin, who have also started in all 47 games, have combined for 44 extra-base hits and 88 RBIs. Nordan is batting .381, while Martin owns a .337 average.

Mount Olive, as a team, possesses a .346 average and has outscored opponents 366-217.

The Trojans, ranked No. 29 in this week's Collegiate Baseball top 30 poll, have prevailed in 14 of their last 15 outings. They had won 12 in a row before gaining a 2-1 split at Limestone this past weekend.

"We've played some good baseball the last month of the season," said Lancaster. "Regional bids are going to come out (soon) and you'll find we're on the bubble again; and rightfully so. We've lost some early games we won't be able to overcome.

"If we can win this tournament, we're automatically in. If we just get to the finals, we have to sit around for a couple of weeks to see what the (regional selection) committee decides. That's not really fun."