From UMO Media Relations
MOUNT OLIVE – Prior to 2008, the small town of Mount Olive, North Carolina (population 4,589) was known primarily as the home of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the largest independent purveyor of pickled cucumbers in the United States.
The University of Mount Olive baseball team dramatically changed that narrative in 2008. The Trojans seized national headlines by becoming the school’s first-ever NCAA Division II National Champions in any sport when they punctuated a remarkable 58-6 season by beating Ouachita Baptist, 6-2, in the 2008 title game in Sauget, Illinois.
Time has a way of offering perspective to such a rare achievement. Carl Lancaster, who retired in 2018 after a 33-year tenure as Mount Olive’s legendary baseball coach, still marvels about his good fortune to coach the greatest baseball team in Conference Carolinas’ storied baseball history.
“What a tough group of young men,” said Carl Lancaster. “They were really a no nonsense team. There was that confidence in which they never thought they were going to lose. We lost six games all year and they were mad about every one of them!”
In what the coach called “one of those fantasy teams,” the Trojans featured a well-balanced club with no apparent weaknesses. Ranked No. 1 nationally for much of the season, they reeled off a 23-game winning streak at one juncture and won 24 of their final 26 games en route to the national crown.
“Everybody knew their role and we seemed to have different heroes every game,” added Carl Lancaster, who waited 22 seasons before accomplishing the ultimate goal. “There was a lot of talent on the team even though we only had 26 guys on the roster. We had five players drafted that season and another two from that team the next year.”
The top-scoring (590 runs) and third-best ERA (2.95) squad in school annals, the
Trojans featured a galaxy of stars.
Outfielder Alex Vertcnik batted .416, belted three home runs in a game against Coker University and drove in 77 runs for the season. He batted .500 (8-for-16) at the National Finals, closing the campaign on a 26-game hitting streak.
Offensively, Mount Olive batted .354 as a team (sixth nationally) and ranked first among NCAA Division II teams in hits and sacrifice flies.
“We had a lot of depth that year,” recalled Rob Watt, who served as hitting coach in 2008 before being promoted to head coach upon Lancaster’s retirement two years ago. “It wasn’t like opposing pitchers could look forward to a part of the lineup and relax. There just was no chance to take a breather. Dylan Holton got the big double in the championship game and he batted eighth. Rich Racobaldo hit seventh most of the season and he was drafted by the Cardinals.”
First baseman Erik Lovett (who was the National Player of the Year in 2007) matched Vertcnik’s RBI total (77), launched 18 home runs and was a veritable doubles machine with the second most two-baggers in school history (28). Meanwhile, catcher Jason Sherrer, a .402 hitter, drove in a team-high 83 runs, the second-most RBIs in a single season in Mount Olive history. And shortstop and leadoff man David Cooper owned the basepaths, scoring the third-most runs (80) in the school’s record book and finishing his career with the second highest stolen base total (102) among all-time Trojans.
On the mound, the Trojans unleashed the most potent one-two pitching punch in NCAA Division II in Ryan Schlecht (13-0, 2.94 ERA) and Casey Hodges (10-1, 2.53 ERA), a right-handed tandem that combined to win 23 of 24 decisions. Schlecht was the 2008 Conference Carolinas Pitcher of the Year and an NCBWA First Team All-American, while Hodges earned Third Team All-America honors and was the winning pitcher in the NCAA Championship Game.
Hodges, who later pitched in the Atlanta Braves minor league system, is now Mount Olive’s pitching coach. In fact, the entire current Trojans’ coaching staff were members of the 2008 title team. Watt served as Lancaster’s top assistant on that championship club, while assistants Hodges, Sherrer and Jesse Lancaster were all players on that ’08 team.
“I remember how close we were as teammates and friends,” recalls Hodges of that special group. “We still have that feeling today in the program. We lean on that recipe every day, stressing to our players to be a good teammate, work your tail off and want it more for the people around you than yourself.”
For Coach Lancaster, the championship ride was extra special because his son Jesse was a member of the team and batted .467 (7-for-16) in the national tournament.
“When he first joined the team, I made it clear he was going to have to earn his role a little more than the other guys because he was the coach’s son,” Carl Lancaster said. “But Jesse is a really hard-nosed kid who loves the game. He plays with reckless abandon. He’s just fun to watch. He had a huge hit and run in the final game.”
In many ways, young Jesse was a Mount Olive Trojan by the time he came out of the womb. At age four, he was already accompanying his dad on bus trips with the team. By age seven, he had memorized all the players’ jersey numbers.
“When I enrolled, it was kind of weird calling him coach, because he had never coached me before college,” said Jesse Lancaster. “Once I earned my stripes with the team, I started calling him ‘pops.’ It was such a special experience to play for my dad.”
While he considered himself just one of the players, Jesse did share one touching moment at the nationals.
“In the opening ceremonies, each team’s players were to walk in numerical order on the field. Dad changed the order so I could walk next to him. Right then, I realized it was a moment that we both would cherish.”
The aftermath of the title-clinching game is something every team member will cherish as well. Following the trophy presentation on the field, the coaches, players and families celebrated at a local steakhouse in Sauget.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed being in the company of so many people,” said Watt about the postgame meal. “It really was the cherry on top. There were smiles everywhere and even some singing. We finally took a moment to appreciate going 58-6. You didn’t want that night to end.”
Their team flight the next day landed at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, where buses and a police escort waited. When the buses arrived in Mount Olive, a town parade commenced featuring fire trucks, the school band, virtually every teacher and staff from the university and every resident of the town.
“It was a madhouse,” remembered Hodges. “I had never seen that many people at one time in Mount Olive. It was standing room in the parking lot and at the ballpark. It was then that I realized this was way bigger than just baseball.”
Hodges also said that memories of that season remain all over town with clippings, photos and posters adorning the walls of restaurants and other businesses down Main Street.
Coach Lancaster, who still lives in nearby Goldsboro, North Carolina, remains close to many of his players and coaches.
“You develop relationships where the players almost become your own kids,” he said. “Mount Olive is a small place. This is your family. We look forward to all the reunions and alumni games, so we can catch up. I will tell you this, though. I’m getting tired of going to all the weddings!”
One of those weddings involved his son, Jesse, who married wife Heather and now continues the Lancaster tradition as an offensive coach and recruiting coordinator for his beloved Mount Olive Trojans. He also teaches health and physical education classes on campus.
“This place has been so good to me,” said the 34-year-old Jesse, who earned a Sports Management degree and Master’s in Arts and Teaching. “My heartstrings have been attached to this school and the baseball program since I was a young child. I still see so many familiar faces that I grew up with.”
The younger Lancaster continues to look back at the lessons learned from that magical 2008 season.
“That experience taught me how to be a man,” he said. “It taught me to be accountable and humble. It also taught me about adversity and perseverance. When you can do it in a team sport, it’s more meaningful. We will forever be linked together.”
Jesse said he also feels a responsibility to retain the Mount Olive championship culture that his father first created.
“It all starts with recruiting. The bar was set high after 2008. It’s what drives me to find the right kind of kids for this program. We want young men who aren’t just talented but also care about the team and are willing to work together for a common cause. I know there are some great recruiters out there, but having been part of Mount Olive baseball for almost all my life, I cannot imagine another coach more passionate about their program.”
The entire 2008 National Champions, who along with their head coach were inducted into the Mount Olive Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018, will always be remembered for one of the greatest achievements in the 90-year history of Conference Carolinas.
Bob Rose is a longtime sports public relations executive who has worked for the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, the NFL Cardinals, Cal, Stanford and other organizations. Conference Carolinas’ official storyteller, Rose will incorporate unique features through his “Body, Mind, and Soul” series into the 90th anniversary celebration.
Conference Carolinas History
Founded: 12-6-1930 at Washington Duke Hotel in Durham, N.C.
North State Conference: 1930-31–1960-61
Carolinas Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: 1961-62–1994-95
Carolinas-Virginia Athletic Conference: 1995-96–2006-2007
Conference Carolinas: 2007-08–present
This is Conference Carolinas Today
Conference Carolinas has a rich tradition in roots that dates back to its inception on Dec. 6, 1930. The NCAA Division II athletics conference presently has member schools located in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Conference Carolinas will feature 11 members in the 2020-21 academic year before expanding to 13 teams for the 2021-22 academic year with the addition of Francis Marion and UNC Pembroke. Francis Marion will be first-time members of Conference Carolinas, while this will be UNC Pembroke’s second time as a member of Conference Carolinas (1976-92).
Conference Carolinas member institutions in the 2020-21 academic year are Barton, Belmont Abbey, Chowan, Converse, Emmanuel, Erskine, King, Lees-McRae, Mount Olive, North Greenville and Southern Wesleyan.
Conference Carolinas believes in the development and formation of the whole person in body, mind and soul. Our students are nationally recognized for their extraordinary success in the classroom, in the community and at the highest levels of NCAA competition.
Please visit ConferenceCarolinas.com to learn more about Conference Carolinas.