Mount Olive ready to defend conference tournament title
By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on April 15, 2009 1:46 PM
MOUNT OLIVE -- It may not be quite as visible as in year's past but Mount Olive has regained its swagger in recent weeks.
The second-seeded Trojans (26-16, 12-6 Carolinas) enter this week's Conference Carolinas tournament winners of six straight games and the two-time defending tournament champions.
Mount Olive faces seventh-seeded Anderson in the first round at 10 a.m. on Thursday at Fleming Stadium in Wilson.
Head coach Carl Lancaster has finally found the missing pieces to a batting order that has struggled to produce from top to bottom at times this season.
Jonathan Smith, Kevin Kearney, Joseph Westbrook and Tyler Smith have settled into the six through nine spots in the lineup and have provided newfound consistency. The quartet of sluggers combined for 15 hits and 11 RBI in the Trojans' three-game sweep of Limestone at Scarborough Field last weekend.
Eight different Mount Olive hitters currently have batting averages of .318 or better with four of those eight hitting .378 or higher.
"The guys are comfortable now," Lancaster said. "Westbrook has finally got in the lineup and he's doing the job for us. We're swinging it all the way up and down the lineup now, we really are."
After surrendering six runs or more in each of its first six losses, the Trojans' pitching staff has shown marked improvement with experience. University of North Carolina transfer BJ Dail continues to shine when asked to take the mound.
Dail (7-0) struck out 15 Limestone batters and allowed just one run in a one-hit complete-game gem in Mount Olive's 2-1 seven inning victory last Friday. The junior right-hander has a 2.44 ERA and has allowed just 16 earned runs in 59 innings.
Dail and Ryan Kussmaul (4-1) are the only Trojans' hurlers with ERA's under 4.00 to have started at least eight games. Finding arms to eat up innings while keeping Mount Olive in games will be pivotal as the tournament progresses.
"If our arms can give us what we need out of them we're going to be fine," Lancaster said. "The last two weekends our pitching has been really good. You're no better than your pitcher's are. If you're pitching isn't good than you're not going to be good."
Anderson (21-27) took two out of three games from the visiting Trojans in late February. Mount Olive surrendered nine runs or more in each of the three games.
The Trojans returned just three starters off of last season's national championship squad. With a roster full of new faces, Lancaster was quick to dismiss the factor experience would play in this weekend's tournament.
However, as bleak as things appeared after a 12-10 start the veteran Mount Olive skipper hasn't ruled out a third consecutive tournament title.
"This is a new club but this club is a year old now," Lancaster said. "We're a good team but we haven't played well all year. We're not playing to lose anymore. Who knows about the tournament, if we go in there and play like we're capable I think we're the best team. If I was a betting man I would have to bet on this team right now."
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