04/22/09 — Opinion -- MOC seniors take charge at tourney

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Opinion -- MOC seniors take charge at tourney

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on April 22, 2009 1:46 PM

They made spectacular catches as they crashed into each other in the outfield. They delivered clutch home runs during pivotal at-bats and mustered the courage to toss inning after inning of gritty relief with their opportunity to defend a national championship hanging in the balance.

Mount Olive's quest for a fourth straight Conference Carolinas tournament title and an NCAA regional berth came up a bit short, but don't blame that on the holdovers from last season's national title team.

Midway through the season Trojans head coach Carl Lancaster, faced with the reality of an underachieving influx of new talent, began relying on proven veterans.

Last week's conference tournament was no different.

It started with senior left-hander Paul Novicki's seven shutout innings in relief of starting pitcher Ryan Kussmaul. The South Lenoir graduate struck out eight and scattered five hits to keep Mount Olive within striking distance of Anderson in opening-round play Thursday.

The senior leadership continued in a 6-4, elimination-round win over Coker. Pat Ball gutted out seven innings on the mound and allowed four runs to give the Trojans new life.

Fellow senior and Conference Carolinas co-player of the year Rich Racobaldo belted a solo home run in the fifth inning with Mount Olive clinging to a 4-3 lead. Senior Alex Vertcnik's two-out RBI double stretched the lead to 6-4 in the eighth. Fellow senior Craig Beasley worked two scoreless innings for his first save of the season.

Racobaldo, Vertcnik and Jesse Lancaster -- the lone returning starting position players from a year ago -- combined to go 8-for-13 at the plate with four RBI against Coker.

Junior Kyle Jones, a hero from last season's regional and College World Series, threw 41/3 innings of one-run relief in an 11-6 victory over Limestone in losers' bracket play.

Senior Andy Hilliard lined a rally-starting single to center field in the Trojans' half of the eighth inning against the Saints. Dylan Holton, who filled in for the injured Anthony Williams at second base in the 2008 CWS, put Mount Olive ahead for good with a two-run double.

Perhaps no play personified the sheer effort of the Trojans' veterans better than Vertcnik's catch in right field during the third inning on Friday night.

Vertcnik tracked a deep fly ball off the bat of Belmont Abbey's Danny Brion on a dead sprint and somehow held onto a spectacular catch while colliding with center fielder Joseph Westbrook.

Both Vertcnik and Westbrook laid on the Fleming Stadium field for several minutes and stayed in the ballgame. As if to only cement his reputation as a fearless team-first player, Vertcnik later moved behind the plate.

"The kids battled," said coach Lancaster. "They wanted to win and I can't fault them for anything because they really battled."

As the final outs were recorded on Friday evening and Mount Olive's hopes of repeating as national champions faded into the night, the players the Trojans had on the field read like a "who's who" from last season's roster.

Jackson Massey, a holdover from a year ago had taken over in right field and Racobaldo had moved over to shortstop. Blatantly missing were the highly-touted transfers and recruits saddled with expectations before the season began.

"As it turned out late, we had all those guys on the field that were with us last year," said Lancaster. "Some of the guys that we had played a lot early just didn't get better. Those older guys knew what it was about to get down and grind.

"These kids that we brought in this year just didn't have the grit in them that I expected them to."

Racobaldo, Vertcnik and Lancaster finished the tournament a combined 20-for-48, nine RBI and two home runs.

Leading by example doesn't always result in conference tournament titles, national championships and celebratory rallies at Scarborough Field. It just puts a fitting end to your legacy as a guy more concerned with how the team is remembered than whether you're remembered at all.