Hope springs eternal for Mount Olive teams
By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on January 26, 2007 2:05 PM
MOUNT OLIVE -- Punxsutawney Phil, the fabled groundhog who predicts winter's longevity or early departure, won't ascend from his warm burrow at Gobbler's Knob until late next week.
Should the furry creature see his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't, then an early spring is expected.
Mount Olive's athletes and coaches can hardly wait for the spring season to arrive. Seven head coaches unveiled a "sneak preview" of their respective teams during an informal luncheon held Thursday on the 56-year-old campus. Each coach spoke candidly about what Trojan supporters might see on the tennis courts, golf links, softball and baseball diamond this season.
Admittedly, all seven teams are coming off successful 2006 campaigns. Men's golf and baseball advanced to the regional stage, while softball posted 26 victories -- the most since the Michelle Mills era in 2000.
The septet helped Mount Olive seize a school-best, third-place tie with Belmont Abbey in the annual Joby Hawn Cup competition, which recognizes the top athletic program in the Carolinas-Virginia Athletics Conference each season. Second-year Trojans athletics director Jeff Eisen hopes the consistency continues in one of the nation's most-respected Division II conferences.
"We're real excited about the upcoming spring sports season and each of the teams are very competitive," said Eisen. "We're real excited about the opportunities that each (team) has, and we think that we're going to be competing in the conference for championships across the board.
"The prospects for the spring look very good."
The reigning CVAC tournament champions are ranked No. 20 in the Collegiate Baseball magazine preseason poll, and return 18 letter winners off last year's team. Included among the mix are CVAC freshman-of-the year Jesse Lancaster and two preseason All-American candidates -- Josh Carter and David Cooper.
The Trojans open the season Feb. 3 with back-to-back doubleheaders at nationally-ranked Armstrong Atlantic State (Ga.) University. The four-game set begins a daunting 11-game road swing that includes contests at No. 2-ranked Georgia College and State, and No. 6-ranked Francis Marion (S.C.) University.
"(Our) expectations are extremely high and usually that means you have good personnel," said veteran head coach Carl Lancaster. "Although, that means everybody you play feels like if they can beat you is a good thing for them, especially if you're not having a great season.
"Every time you walk out, you better be ready and prepared to play. Otherwise a great, potential season could turn into something not so good."
The arrival of Division I transfer Jenny Jackson could boost the softball program, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, onto the regional and national scene this season. The right-handed Jackson posted 11 victories on the mound for Western Carolina last spring and earned Southern Conference freshman-of-the-year accolades.
Jackson signed with the Trojans in late December and adds another dimension to an-already strong pitching staff for fifth-year head coach Jaime Kylis-Higginbotham.
"Adding Jenny was a merry Christmas to me," said Kylis-Higginbotham. "She's a phenomenal athlete -- a well-round athlete who fits into our program. She throws a different style ... a control pitcher with a dominating presence on the mound."
Mount Olive opens its season Feb. 16 at Lander (S.C.) University. The most-demanding part of the Trojans' schedule is a five-day worksheet that includes tournaments at Savannah College Art and Design, and Francis Marion (S.C.) University.
Kylis-Higginbotham's squad will see numerous Peach Belt teams that should prepare them for CVAC play.
Senior Chris Bitzenhofer is anxious to hit the links this spring and help guide Mount Olive to another Mid-Atlantic Regional appearance in men's golf. One of five returning starters, Bitzenhofer helped the Trojans successfully defend their St. Andrews Invitational crown in the fall.
"Making the regionals last year was an honor," said Bitzenhofer. "We expect to be there this season."
Head coach Chip Spiron shares Bitzenhofer's confidence and expects both teams -- men's and women's -- to experience good seasons. The women's team won the St. Andrews Invitational in the fall and recorded their lowest 18-hole team score.
Bitzenhofer should get strong support from Mick Moberg and Goldsboro native Jonathan Greene. Senior Kate Somek, who hails from Ontario, is the lone senior on the women's team. Spiron said that junior and Goldsboro native Kristen Freeman had a solid fall campaign. Freshman Kate Moberg, Mick's younger sister, and sophomore Deborah Woodrum should contribute significant rounds.
The women's team opens its season Feb. 5-6 at Kiawah Island, while the men's team begins play Feb. 26-27 in the Don Scalf Invitational, which is hosted by N.C. Wesleyan College.
Graduation depleted the men's tennis roster and just two starters remain -- junior Guilherme Serra and sophomore Danny Mosteanu. Serra has posted a 19-1 singles record against CVAC foes during his first two seasons, and should step into the No. 1 seed this spring.
MOC head coach Burt Lewis signed three junior college players and two freshmen, giving him an eight-player roster which spans five continents. Included among the newcomers is junior Richard Maclachlan, who is ranked among the top 25 players in his native South Africa.
"Richard and Frederic Barros will add some depth to our team," said Lewis. "I expect Guilherme and Daniel to provide leadership."
The women's team lost four-time, All-CVAC players Lucia Henkle and Mariana Shimoda. The Trojans return four starters, including senior Lauren Harris and Goldsboro native Jennifer Moats, who is a junior.
"Our returning players, I think, will be the ones to lead us and provide the newcomers with the guidance that will hopefully carry us to a good season," said Lewis.
The men's volleyball team opened its season last weekend and posted a 2-1 record during its three-match in the New England area. Six starters return, including setter Zach Wilson and libero Kris Suarez. Wilson is the lone member of the Trojans' club team, which started play in 2003.
Fourth-year head coach Sasha Gutor brought in six freshmen and has a diverse 14-player roster that includes 10 Floridians, three Ohioans and one Venezuelan.
"This is a much better team than we've had in the past two or three years," said Gutor.
Wilson said it's been hard establishing a solid foundation since the program loses numerous players each season. He and Suarez agreed there is pressure to keep consistency and provide leadership on a daily basis.
The Trojans will play their first six matches on the road before returning home Feb. 3 against Warner Southern.
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