WILSON — Mount Olive College lost a lot of weapons from a baseball team that reached the NCAA Div. II championship finals last year.
It didn’t take long for Trojans coach Carl Lancaster to reload, though.
Ranked number one nationally in Collegiate Baseball’s most recent Division II Top 30 Poll, Mount Olive (42-7) claimed its third consecutive Conference Carolinas tournament championship with a four-game sweep at Wilson’s Fleming Stadium last weekend. Earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament’s Southeast Regional (May 17-20), the Trojans will seek a return trip to Cary, for the NCAA Div. II Baseball Championship (May 26-June 2).
Last year’s pitching ace, Carter Capps, is now a highly rated prospect for the Seattle Mariners. Another key pitcher from last year’s postseason run, Pete Levitt is in the Chicago Cubs organization now, and slugger Michael Knox, who hit 23 homers last year, is in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
“We only had three starters back and lost our top six pitchers,” Lancaster said. “This team is totally different from last year’s. We brought in a whole team, and it’s hard to get them all in the same direction in one year, but the boys have become very close and gotten us here.”
Junior Matt Dillon transferred in from Guilford Technical Community College, and is 9-0, winning conference Pitcher of the Year honors.
“My pitching coach at Guilford played at Mount Olive, and I knew how successful they had been, but I originally committed to an NAIA team in Tennessee,” Dillon said. “But then I played in the summer with [Mt. Olive first baseman] Jake Rogers and got interested. It worked out for me to get here, and now our ultimate goal is to win that ring..
Senior pitcher Jake Moser transferred in from Clarke College (Ia.) and went 9-2. Junior Zach Smith (7-2) came from Middle Georgia Community College. Derek Justice (4-0), a lefty freshman who threw eight innings in the championship game Sunday, transferred from the University of Virginia. Chris Hinton, a senior from Princeton, NC, is 5-0 out of the Trojans bullpen.
Rogers hit .414 last year as a junior all-American and has followed that up with a .414 average 17 home runs so far this year, including three in the conference tournament. He was named conference Player of the Year and the tournament’s Outstanding Player. Hoping for another shot at the Division II national title, Rogers said he learned something last year.
“We expected to win this,” Rogers said of the conference tournament. “Now we hope to host a Regional, hopefully win that and go back to the World Series. We learned there last year anything can happen. We went into a game with our ace [Capps] going, pretty much thought we had that game won, and they hit him around. They kind of threw us down into the losers bracket, and we had trouble getting back up.”
Junior catcher-designated hitter Geno Escalante said he didn’t know anything about Mt. Olive a year ago. But when his committment to a Division I program fell through, he left Chipola Junior College in Florida for the Trojans.
“Honestly, I didn’t know anything about Mt. Olive, but my dad saw them in the World Series last year,” Escalante said. “Coach Lancaster called, sold me on the program and it’s been a great move for me.”
It’s been a great move for the Trojans, also. Escalante is hitting .438 and has a school-record 41-game hitting streak going.
“This team has exceeded expectations,” Lancaster said. “We started the year 5-4, but have only lost three games since. I’m as proud of this team as any we’ve ever had.”