02/01/08 — No time for Mount Olive to rest on laurels from historic campaign

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No time for Mount Olive to rest on laurels from historic campaign

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on February 1, 2008 1:54 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- A preseason national ranking of sixth and a world of expectations aside, Mount Olive baseball coach Carl Lancaster isn't shy when addressing the question marks surrounding this season's squad.

The Trojans lost 16 seniors off a club that won 49 games, claimed both the formerly Carolinas-Virginia Conference (now Conference Carolinas) regular-season and tournament titles, and finished a win away from the reaching the NCAA Division II College World Series.

"Quite honestly I do not know how good we're going to be," Lancaster said. "That No. 6 in the nation preseason ranking is flattering, although it's probably due to tradition. We've been very good for quite some time. This team here has a chance to be really good. The reason we have a chance is we have 12 seniors this year."

Mount Olive won't have to wait long to find out just how good it is as Tusculum, a 50-game winner from a season ago, visits Scarborough Field this weekend. A doubleheader is scheduled for noon Saturday with the series finale set to begin at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Senior and Goldsboro native Erik Lovett will return to anchor the Trojans lineup after batting .403 with 21 homers a season ago. Lovett was tabbed the Daktronics Division II player of the year for his efforts, which Lovett feels doesn't matter now that a new season is set to begin.

"That's over," Lovett said. "I think this year is going to be a little different. I'm probably going to get pitched around. I just have to take that and go to first."

While Lovett returns, gone are third baseman Stephen Nordan and left fielder Dustin Richardson. Both hit over .395 last season and played in at least 60 games. Mount Olive tallied 87 home runs in 2007, a statistic Lancaster doesn't anticipate repeating.

"This year we will not hit the long ball like we did last year." Lancaster said. "When you have a team with a bit more speed like we have this year then we take more risks. When the risks don't work out, you guys sitting in the stands talk about how stupid the coach was."

Defensively, the Trojans don't have many holes to fill. Lovett returns at first base, with Anthony Williams and David Cooper back at second and shortstop, respectively. Tim Morgan, Andy Hillard and Rich Racobaldo give Lancaster options at third base.

Senior Jason Sherrer, a 41-game starter in 2007 returns behind the plate, while Kinston native Tyler Smith is described by Lancaster as, "the best freshman catcher we've ever had." Junior Alex Vertcnik should also see time calling pitches.

Mount Olive's pitching staff compiled an ERA under 3.50 in 2007 and the Trojans will have some shoes to fill. Tom Layne, now in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, was a nine-game winner a year ago and led the team in innings pitched, logging over 84 with a 2.87 ERA in just 14 appearances while tossing four complete games.

Eight-game winner Judson Smith and Phillip Pennington, a 40-plus innings guy have both moved on.

Right-hander Casey Hodges, an all-tournament selection for his performance at the NCAA Division II South Atlantic Regional returns and should be Mount Olive's No. 1 starter. Hodges pitched a one-hit shutout and sat down the final 19 batters he faced against nationally-ranked Georgia College and State University in the second round of the South Atlantic Regional.

Weston Curles, Ryan Schlecht, Todd Jeffreys and 2006 CVAC freshman of the year Jesse Lancaster will join Hodges in the rotation while Pat Ball returns as the Trojans closer.

"Our pitching staff is solid and we have three lefty's we brought in and we expect them to be in the mix as well," Lancaster said. "We can run off eight or nine guys right now that are very good pitchers. I'm not sure we're not a little deeper and a little stronger (than last year)."

With 38 home games, Mount Olive fans will have ample opportunities to see their squad in action. Non-conference foes Tusculum and Lenoir-Rhyne as well as an always competitive conference schedule will provide the Trojans with tests early and often.

"I always like to play a good schedule early," Lancaster said. "You need to win 40 games to make the regional. I don't think it's doing anybody any good like some of the teams in our league are doing when 15 or 20 of them are against teams that really don't put a lot of emphasis into the game."