Given an opportunity, Olson enjoys hot streak

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Southeast's senior catcher has taken his batting average over the .400 mark.

What a difference a year has made for Southeast Missouri State catcher Levi Olson.

Last season, his first with the Redhawks after transferring from Santa Barbara (Calif.) City College, Olson never could get his offense going and hit .200.

This year, despite not even entering his senior campaign as the Redhawks' starter behind the plate, Olson has been on a seasonlong tear and is batting .410.

Olson, the Ohio Valley Conference's second-leading hitter, had the first five-hit game of his career Saturday, when he went 5-for-5 during an 8-6, 15-inning loss to Samford.

"I just feel really good at the plate," Olson said. "I'm seeing guys who throw hard so well. Last year, I really struggled against those kind of pitchers."

And to think, Olson might not have even received the opportunity to display his improved stroke if not for some misfortune on the part of the Redhawks' other two catchers.

By Olson's own admission, he did not perform very well during the fall, so Quenten Rouse entered the season as the starter with Chad Mercado figuring prominently in the picture.

But Rouse, who missed virtually all of last season with an injury, became banged up again this year and also got off to a slow start at the plate. Mercado also experienced some early injury problems.

That left the door open for Olson, who did not even play during the first several games of the season, as Rouse and Mercado saw all the action behind the plate.

"The thing is, I really had a bad fall, and Q [Rouse] earned the starting job," Olson said. "Then Chad was hurt, and I finally earned my first start. After that, I was just going to do everything I could. I just capitalized."

Did he ever.

Olson, who had a four-hit game at Jacksonville State the week prior to his five-hit outburst against Samford, has kept a stranglehold on the job ever since being inserted into the lineup.

"Levi has played wonderful for us behind the plate, and he's really stepped up offensively," Southeast coach Mark Hogan said. "He's made the most of his opportunity. He's really taken advantage of the situation."

Olson, a rugged 6-foot-2, 220-pounder Californian, came to Southeast last year with strong offensive credentials after batting .381 with four home runs and 15 doubles at Santa Barbara City College.

But, despite having plenty of opportunities -- Olson received 115 official at-bats as Southeast's regular catcher most of the season -- he never could get untracked. In addition to his .200 average, he had one home run, four doubles and 13 runs batted in.

"It was a pretty rough season," Olson acknowledged.

Olson, however, had plenty of success at the plate over the summer while staying in Cape Girardeau to catch for the Plaza Tire Capahas.

Olson said playing for the Capahas and longtime manager Jess Bolen helped him at the plate, as did working diligently with Southeast assistant coach Scott Southard.

"Coach Southard worked with me a lot. He really knows his hitting," Olson said. "My approach this year is a lot different. Last year it was see ball, hit ball. Now I'm looking for pitches in a certain zone."

It has evidently been working. In addition to his .410 average, Olson leads the Redhawks with 11 doubles. With two homers and 16 RBIs, he has already surpassed his 2005 totals in those departments.

And all this success while battling a case of planter fasciitis -- the same ailment that has afflicted Cardinals star Albert Pujols in the past -- that can be extremely painful to the feet.

"They get pretty sore sometimes, but overall it hasn't been too bad," Olson said.

While Olson has been hot for a while now, the rest of the Redhawks have rebounded from a slow collective start at the plate. Southeast's team batting average is up to .252 after it was mired at .217 just a few weeks ago.

"I really thought it was only a matter of time before a lot of the guys would start hitting," Olson said.

The next order of business is for the Redhawks (14-20, 5-7 OVC) to begin moving up the league standings. They're tied for seventh place among 10 teams heading into this weekend's home series against Austin Peay, the preseason OVC favorite that is also just 5-7 in league play.

"We've still got a lot of the season left, but we've got to start getting some wins," Olson said. "We've lost some really tough games, and hopefully we can start pulling some of those out."

Continued offensive excellence from Olson sure couldn't hurt.

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