02/02/07 — Mount Olive diamond nine open 2007 season Saturday

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Mount Olive diamond nine open 2007 season Saturday

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on February 2, 2007 2:10 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- A scattered puzzle.

Veteran Mount Olive College baseball coach Carl Lancaster, now in his 21st season, uses that phrase to describe this year's team. He's got all the pieces, but isn't quite sure how they fit together.

The Trojans lost one returning starter and four pitchers off last year's team which emerged the Carolinas-Virginia Athletics Conference tournament champion and advanced to the NCAA Division II South Atlantic Regional. Nearly 20 letterwinners return to the 2007 team, which is ranked No. 20 in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll.

"Expectations are extremely high," said Lancaster. "With the group we've got returning, there are very few secrets. We've got a lot of good players back and we feel like, on paper, we've got the best team we've ever had.

"That doesn't mean we're going to play the best team. My philosophy is the best team doesn't always win. The team that plays the best does."

Finding that team, according to Lancaster, might take a good two or three weeks. The puzzle's complexion could change depending on a number of factors, including a rigorous non-conference schedule which includes three nationally-ranked opponents during February.

Mount Olive opens the season at noon Saturday with a weekend doubleheader at perennial power Armstrong Atlantic State (Ga.) University. After a four-day break, they travel to No. 2-ranked Georgia College and State University, and play at No. 6-ranked Francis Marion (S.C.) University in just seven days.

The Trojans follow that with a five-game road swing against in-state opponents Lenoir-Rhyne, N.C. Wesleyan and fellow CVAC member Belmont Abbey. N.C. Wesleyan reached the Division III World Series a year ago and is ranked No. 10 in the preseason by Collegiate Baseball.

"This is the most-ridiculous schedule I've ever made and it will be a chore (for us) on the road," said Lancaster, whose team posted an 11-11 road record in 2006.

Puzzle No. 1

Lancaster and his coaching staff -- assistants Rob Watt and Aaron Akin -- usually have some sort of idea about their pitching rotation before the season begins.

Not this time.

Three of the Trojans' top five hurlers graduated in 2006.

"I like this pitching staff, although it is our biggest puzzle," said Lancaster. "Generally, you have four or five guys who you feel like are the ones who are going to get the job done. We don't know who our first four are, who our closer will be or who our set-up guys are.

"We think it's going to be three weeks into the season before we truly know that answer."

Returning to the bullpen are CVAC freshman-of-the-year Jesse Lancaster (6-1, 4.37 ERA), Patrick Ball (0-0, 1.42), Ryan Barham (3-0, 2.62), Ted Pelech (2-0, 2.65), Daniel Wood (5-2, 4.36), Phillip Pennington (6-4, 5.71) and Paul Buhrow (3-2, 6.71).

Lancaster signed a number of pitchers during the offseason. He appeared especially pleased with senior Tom Layne, a hard-throwing left-hander from St. Charles, Mo., during the fall baseball season.

"He can throw a number of pitches and locate very well," said Lancaster. "We've got some good arms coming in, but this fall due to the number of innings they logged this summer and past spring, we shut them down.

"We need them now, healthy and rested. Our pitchers, you can shake them up and whichever one falls out of the hat, we can put them in."

Puzzle No. 2

Mount Olive, unarguably, had one of the best offensive teams in the CVAC a year ago and return 13 of its top 15 hitters.

Rekindling that chemistry and adding junior Erik Lovett into the mix will be key. Lovett sustained a season-ending ACL injury in the Trojans' fourth game of the season. He collected five hits, four RBI and a home run in 10 plate appearances before getting shelved.

Also back are preseason All-American candidates Josh Carter and David Cooper, who batted .406 and .396, respectively, in 2006. Carter manufactured a team-high 67 RBI on 84 hits in 207 at-bats. Cooper, one of three Trojans to play in all 55 games last season, banged out 25 extra-base hits and posted a .575 slugging percentage.

"Cooper, in my opinion, is the heart and soul of this team," said Lancaster. "He really sets the table for us and plays great defense."

Lancaster portrays this team as another long-ball hitting squad. That doesn't favor them at pitcher-friendly Scarborough Field, their home diamond, but it could prove valuable on the road. Mount Olive rapped 38 home runs last season, including seven by Stephen Nordan.

"We hit the long ball and that's a good thing sometimes since we don't get around the bases that well," said Lancaster, whose team hit into 37 double plays last season. "Our biggest weakness is team speed. We've got some base cloggers in the middle. You just have to play the game that you've got.

"We've got to swing the bats pretty good and I'm confident of that."

Of the 13 returning offensive players, 10 hit .300 or better.

Puzzle No. 3

The eyes of the CVAC are upon you.

Once Lancaster unveiled his demanding and challenging schedule, his fellow league coaches began calling him every day. They knew about the returning personnel and eight head coaches picked the Trojans to win the CVAC regular-season championship.

"Everybody is looking at what we're doing because they feel like this team has a legitimate chance of making regionals," said Lancaster. "If we can earn our way in, rather than win the tournament, that can open the door for more (CVAC teams)."

Erskine (S.C.) University finished No. 2 in the nine-team, preseason balloting followed by 2006 regular-season champion Barton. Belmont Abbey and Limestone tied for fourth, while Anderson and Pfeiffer tied for sixth. Coker ended up eighth and St. Andrews wound up ninth.

The CVAC tournament champion earns the automatic bid to postseason play. The NCAA expanded the eight-region field from 32 to 48 teams a year ago.

Lancaster broadened his schedule to include more Peach Belt teams, which he hopes the NCAA selection committee will recognize as the season progresses. The Trojans also face opponents from the South Atlantic, Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and USA South.

"If we can come out of February with a .500 record, I think we're going to be all right," said Lancaster. "To play those kind of teams early on the road might not be smart scheduling, but I think you get better by playing those kind of people.

"They are very valuable to us down deep in the season as to who makes the postseason, so I think it matters who we play early."

Mount Olive's 55-game schedule includes 20 home dates. The Trojans' home opener is Feb. 21 against CIAA member Virginia State University. The non-conference doubleheader begins a stretch of seven home contests in four days.

"With all the recognition we're getting in the preseason, if we let someone sneak up on us, then we're not doing a very good job as coaches," said Lancaster. "Everybody is gunning for us, particularly in our league. The players, if they want to achieve the goals they've set for themselves, they've got to get themselves ready.

"I don't have 56 pre-game speeches. It's a matter of individual desire and how much they want to accomplish."

Those pieces of the puzzle need to fit together soon.