05/18/08 — A new role: Season on bench fuels Lancaster's desire to play

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A new role: Season on bench fuels Lancaster's desire to play

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on May 18, 2008 2:03 AM

Each day the hunger grew as Jesse Lancaster sat and watched his teammates practice on the Scarborough Field diamond.

He listened to the ping of aluminum bats connecting with dirt-stained baseballs. Every so often, a popping sound occurred behind him as hard-thrown pitches settled into the bullpen catchers' leather gloves.

The passion to play again burned within his soul. But a rotator cuff injury kept Lancaster on the bench as Mount Olive came within one game of advancing to the NCAA Division II College World Series.

Lancaster considers his medical red-shirt season a blessing.

"When something is taken away from you, you can hardly stand it," he said. "I'd say it's the best thing to happen to me with the exception of surgery. It just fueled the desire to be back out here."

Lancaster suffered the injury before his freshman season with the Trojans and played through it. He earned rookie of the year accolades as Mount Olive claim the 2006 Carolinas-Virginia Athletics Conference regular-season and tournament titles.

Once the season ended, Lancaster underwent an MRI, which revealed a 90-percent tear in his throwing arm. The doctor repaired the tear and Lancaster didn't waste his rehab time.

He spent countless hours working to regain his flexibility and range of motion.

"It's been a grind, but I'm able to play," said Lancaster.

But play where, exactly?

With another strong pitching staff, the coaches moved Lancaster moved into the mid-week starter's role this spring. While the position suited him, Lancaster felt he could do more.

He actually found his niche during the fall season. Veteran head coach Carl Lancaster and his staff weren't particularly pleased with their outfield play.

"We had an issue in the outfield we were uncomfortable with, so we decided to try him out there," said Lancaster.

Jesse gutted it out in left field and pretty soon the Trojans' coaches had found the quality of play they needed. Josh Harrison moved from right field to center and junior college transfer Alex Vertcnik replaced Harrison.

Before this weekend's regional, the trio had combined for 278 putouts, 19 assists and just three errors.

"We've worked hard at it and I think we're pretty decent out there now," said Lancaster, who earned all-Conference Carolinas honors. "I guess athletic ability makes up for lack of time of being out there. I don't have a lot of experience, but I'm able to give it a go."

Lancaster has also produced offensively. His batting average has jumped nearly 100 points since his freshman season. The sophomore has become a valuable commodity as the No. 2 batter in the order behind lead-off man David Cooper.

Third-base coach Rob Watt, more often than not, asks Lancaster to take numerous positions so Cooper can steal second. If Cooper is successful, Lancaster's next task in the box is to slap a pitch backside and put more pressure on the opposing defense.

"You have to do many things when you handle the bat," said Lancaster. "It's been a good fit for me in the two hole. I don't have the power to hit three or four, but I have enough power to hit in the two hole and drive in some runs."

Through regular-season play, Lancaster had 41 RBI and seven home runs. As a freshman, the Eastern Wayne graduate manufactured just nine RBI and didn't go yard in the 22 games he played.

"All through his career, you never thought of him to be an offensive guy," said coach Lancaster. "He's been very valuable to this ballclub."

Jesse hopes he isn't done.

A fixture at Trojan ballgames since he was five, Lancaster and his teammates yearn for the chance to play in the CWS.

"I've seen all the good teams go through here," said Lancaster. "I can't say we're better or worse than anybody. But I can't imagine what it would be like to be the first team to go (to the CWS).

"Playing alongside my dad has been unreal. I just want to enjoy every minute of it."

And let that burning flame glow brighter each day.