02/12/08 — MOC softball preview: Bigger, better, stronger team ready for 2008

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MOC softball preview: Bigger, better, stronger team ready for 2008

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on February 12, 2008 2:56 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- The Mount Olive College softball team proved last season that it could succeed when expectations were low.

Now, the same cast of players -- with a few new players blended into the lineup -- must prove they can handle the added distraction accorded them in the preseason. League coaches picked the Trojans to repeat as Conference Carolinas regular-season champions.

After surpassing a sixth-place prediction last season, Mount Olive shared the 2007 league title with perennial power Coker (S.C.) College. The Trojans authored a school-best 39-19 record, setting the stage for a 2008 campaign with heightened expectations.

"Although it means nothing, we're excited to get the respect we've been longing for since I took over many years ago," said MOC head coach Jaime Kylis-Higginbotham. "We graduated a large senior class last year, and to be picked first just shows the strength that we have on our team."

The money makers are back.

Junior right-hander Jenny Jackson, the reigning Conference Carolinas player of the year, is one of seven starters back. Catcher Bailey Harrell, a two-time all-conference pick, and 2007 all-conference selection Kensie Cobb returns.

Jackson ranked among the nation's leaders in earned run average (ERA) and hitting in 2007. The Fremont native compiled a microscopic 0.87 ERA, which was seventh-lowest among the country's Division II hurlers. She batted .442 with a slugging percentage of .769.

"Pitching was a strength of ours last year and I am glad that Jenny is a junior," said Kylis-Higginbotham. "We'll get to enjoy her the next couple of years. I've taken over the role as pitching coach. We're doing more things with our workouts to get more out of our pitchers."

Harrell posted the team's second-highest putout total (202) and started in 46 games. Cobb hit .391 and ranked fifth on the team in hits with 36.

Kylis-Higginbotham recruited speed and power hitters in the offseason. She signed Kelly Minshew (Wilson Beddingfield), Jazzmine Lee (Charles B. Aycock) and has been pleased with walk-on Aubrey Reinhard (Rosewood). All three provide different dimensions to a team that can flex its muscles either on the bases or at the plate.

"Moreso this year, we do have a power-hitting team than I've had in the past," said Kylis-Higginbotham. "All of our power hitters have a good short game and we teach them both aspects. We want to make sure we're a well-rounded team."

Mount Olive has increased its win total each season with Kylis-Higginbotham, including a 16-4 conference worksheet in 2007. The Trojans claimed the program's first league title in more than a decade.

Building on that success and dealing with the bigger target on their collective backs will be key this spring. Mount Olive will play 23 doubleheaders and participate in two highly-competitive tournaments during Spring Break.

The Trojans open their season Wednesday at in-state rival Chowan University and entertain Newberry (S.C.) on Friday.

"The target is bigger now," said Kylis-Higginbotham. "We have to push ourselves harder in practice ... do more things to make teams realize they are not going to see what they saw last year.

"They're going see a bigger, better Mount Olive."