Leadership needed to keep Trojans on pace in 2010
By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on February 11, 2010 1:54 PM
The pieces were all in place. From the talent on the roster, to the coaching staff and a national championship being contested within driving distance, the table was set for Mount Olive to repeat as national champions a year ago.
The Trojans began the season with a No. 1 ranking and a world of expectations.
Head coach Carl Lancaster had assembled a roster mixed with seasoned veterans and promising young recruits. Rich Racobaldo, Alex Vertcnik, Jesse Lancaster, Airlon Vinson, Dylan Holton, Kyle Jones, Paul Novicki, Craig Beasley and Pat Ball -- all holdovers from the 2008 national title squad -- were counted upon to provide leadership.
Mount Olive got off to an uncharacteristic 2-3 start and dropped five out of eight games from mid-February to early March. The Trojans rebounded with a seven-game winning streak heading into the Conference Carolinas tournament and finished the regular season second in the conference.
Despite a strong finish to the regular season, Lancaster dealt with academic issues all year from his influx of new talent and rumors of off-the-field problems began to swirl during the conference tournament.
Mount Olive had its string of six consecutive first-round wins snapped in a 4-2 loss to No. 7 seed Anderson on the first day of the conference tournament.
The Trojans did survive a pair of elimination games before having their hopes of a second national title fade into the night with a loss to eventual tournament champion Belmont Abbey.
As the final outs were recorded against the Crusaders, Lancaster's lineup was full of reliable veterans with the majority of the highly-touted recruits and transfers noticeably absent.
Mount Olive's season may have come to a close that night, but it wasn't for a lack of leadership. Vertcnik's spectacular running catch in right field that resulted in a crash with center fielder Joseph Westbrook personified the effort turned in by the Trojans' veterans.
Racobaldo, Vertcnik and Lancaster finished the tournament a combined 20-for-48, with nine RBI and two home runs.
"As it turned out late, we had all those guys on the field that were with us last year," said coach 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."
Lancaster plucked the 'bad apples' from the orchard during the offseason and this year's roster has a blatantly different feel. Just like a year ago, Mount Olive isn't short on leadership. Lancaster, Vinson and Holton -- the Trojans' lone returning position players -- exemplify leadership.
Lancaster is a three-year captain, was an Academic-All Region selection last season and earned a 4.0 GPA last semester. Vinson is studying to become a minister while Holton is an aspiring musician. These three veterans along with their skipper have raved about the chemistry Mount Olive has already developed.
"This is definitely one of the hardest working groups I've been with," said Jesse Lancaster. "I think they're very accountable and responsible for themselves, as well as us as a team."
Leadership can only stretch so far when those in need of a leader aren't willing to be led. If the Trojans hope to advance to Cary and compete for another Division II national championship, they would be wise to play a season-long game of follow the leader.
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