Coach's doubts erased once players find their groove
By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on May 17, 2012 1:48 PM
Sitting in the comfort and warmth of the press box one winter afternoon, Mount Olive College head baseball coach Carl Lancaster peered out the window and watched his team work out.
The players' work ethic, desire to compete and will to get better immediately caught his attention.
Still, Lancaster had his doubts. With just four returning starters in the lineup and several JUCO players trying to find their respective niches, he and his staff wondered just how good the Trojans would be this spring.
The skepticism didn't surface until mid-February.
Mount Olive started 4-0, but dropped four of its next five games including a doubleheader loss to former Division I member LeMoyne (N.Y.) College and a a single game to region nemesis Francis Marion (S.C.) University.
"Early on we lost some games and I think it was a matter of us getting people in the right positions," Lancaster said. "We had to go through some growing pains early to figure out who was best at what position, and once we figured out where they were going to play, they started working very hard and it's got us where we are today."
Outfielders Antonio Callaway and Mike Mercurio, two of four players who have started all 52 games this, remain in their original position since the season-opening series against Lenoir-Rhyne. Lancaster and his staff experimented with different batting orders, and settled upon a nine-man lineup that has become almost deadly.
Mount Olive (44-8 overall) won its Conference Carolinas opening series against Belmont Abbey, and lost just twice in its next 37 outings. The Trojans captured their third consecutive regular-season conference and tournament championships, and vaulted to No. 1 in the Collegiate Baseball top 30 poll.
"I can't recall another group to come together quite like this group has," Lancaster said. "Not to say the '08 team didn't, but some of them had already been here (in the regional). With only four guys returning from the season before and to able to put together a season like we have, it's just unbelievable.
"It really is."
Thirteen Trojans, who have either started or appeared in pinch-hit roles, are batting .333 or better this season. JUCO transfer Geno Escalante leads the hit parade with 94 and holds a 70-69 edge over teammate Jake Rogers in RBI. Rogers, the Conference Carolinas player-of-the-year, has mashed a team-best 17 home runs this season.
Mount Olive has recorded almost 500 RBI and swiped a program-best 144 bases. Callaway and Mercurio are the main thieves with 38 and 25 stolen bases, respectively.
"I don't really think we understood our style of play when we first started because if you look at our stats, we have more than 140 stolen bases and we've never done that before," Lancaster said. "Once we got our best defensive people in there who would give us a chance to win, we found out we've got six or seven darn good runners.
"That changed the outlook of what we traditionally do."
One tradition hasn't changed -- MOC pitching.
Three hurlers -- Matt Dillon, Zach Smith and Jake Moser -- have combined for 27 wins on the mound this season. The trio is part of a staff that has fashioned a team earned run average of 3.07 and held opposing teams to a .244 batting average.
Pitching coach Jason Sherrer has called upon 12 different arms to burn more than 433 innings. Mount Olive has logged four shutouts and emerged victorious in eight of 10 games decided by two runs or less.
"This is one of the most fulfilling years we've ever had and I don't know how far we are going to go," Lancaster said. "When you lose as many as we did and to come back and actually be in a regional, that's pretty awesome. To put yourself in position to host one is unbelievable.
"You can never measure what's inside a kid. We've got some guys who want to win and I think that goes back to how we work, what our expectations are from a kid comes in here. We've got a tradition and everybody expects us to do well."
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