01/30/09 — New team presents questions

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New team presents questions

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on January 30, 2009 1:46 PM

Mount Olive College, the reigning NCAA Division II national baseball champion, has been a trendy pick among the preseason polls this winter.

The Trojans are ranked No. 1 by Collegiate Baseball magazine and their fellow Conference Carolina peers. They're the preseason No. 2 selection in the Ping! Baseball poll behind perennial power Delta State.

There's no doubt 2008 was a storybook season.

Now the trick is proving MOC's title run wasn't just a flash in the pan.

Three starters return off last year's team, which compiled a school-record 58 wins and had five players chosen in the Major League Draft. A trio of pitchers -- Ryan Schlect, Michael Williams and Casey Hodges -- enabled the Trojans to stand eye-to-eye with top national programs during the course of their careers. All three have graduated.

Some folks think the Trojans will stay among the nation's elite this season.

MOC coach Carl Lancaster isn't quite convinced ... yet.

"They put us in front, but I'm not sure we belong there," said Lancaster. "Obviously we had a tremendous year last year, and I've got to give all the credit to Coach (Aaron) Akin, Coach (Rob) Watt and the players.

"It's a new season starting this Sunday. It's going to be fun and I look forward to it."

The Trojans open their 2009 campaign at perennial Peach Belt power Armstrong Atlantic State (Ga.) University. The teams will play a three-game series -- one on Sunday and a doubleheader on Monday.

Lancaster welcomed 26 new faces to Scarborough Field in the fall, including a solid corps of players from the junior college ranks, including Lenoir Community College. The Lancers finished runners-up to LSU-Eunice in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II World Series last summer.

"I think this team is going to be OK, but it might be awhile simply because we have so many unanswered questions," said Lancaster. "The preseason this year hasn't been real conducive to finding out what you've got. We've either had freezing-cold weather or a wet field.

"It's hard to determine just exactly how good your players are under those circumstances."

Lancaster said that no one player has stepped up to take a position in the field except for the three returning starters -- junior Jesse Lancaster (outfield), senior Rich Racobaldo (third base) and senior Alex Vertcnik (catcher). Vertcnik played right field last season.

Lancaster said a platooning system will be used and that his pitchers won't go beyond a certain count during the first month of the season.

This Trojans will also miss the power they've enjoyed the last three years and will rely more on the "small ball" game of advancing runners in scoring position. In retrospect, the team speed has improved.

"We do have some power in the middle order, but we have more well-rounded players ... guys who can run the bases a little better," said Watt. "It's more fun to coach that, anyway. Two years ago, we relied on the long ball and that hurt us in the end.

"With speed you're never really out of the game. You can always claw your way back into it ... put pressure on the other team's defense."

Mount Olive is scheduled to play 54 contests this season with 28 at home. The Trojans will play 14 of their first 19 games on the road, including their Conference Carolinas opener Feb. 14 at archrival Barton.

The home opener is Feb. 10 against South Atlantic power Wingate University.

"When you got a whole new team, you've got to go off and get them polished up before you bring them home and that's how we're looking at it," said Lancaster of the early road swing. "If we get back without being physically tired, we're going to be fine by that point. The guys are working hard, but you never know how they're going to react when you don't know your personnel under game situations.

"Some guys are great practice players and some guys are gamers, and vice versa."