Flames reload, stack schedule to prepare for national run
August 13, 2014 | Lynchburg, Va.
Liberty University's men's lacrosse program doesn't back away from challenges.
Case in point: the Flames, who moved up to Division I of the Men's Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA) last season and finished ranked 21st, will face a 2014-15 schedule that ranks among the toughest in the nation, raising the eyebrows of its conference foes.
"The SouthEastern Lacrosse Conference (SELC) has not been viewed as a very dominant conference within the MCLA for the last few years," Liberty Head Coach Kyle McQuillan said, "so we really wanted to make a statement."
Just skim the team's spring schedule, which includes six ranked opponents — three in the top 10 and the national championship runner-up — and that statement comes through loud and clear.
"Last year, we proved that we could beat every team in the SELC," McQuillan said, noting the Flames avenged a loss to Florida State in the SELC Division I Tournament semifinals before losing to Virginia Tech, a team it defeated to clinch the SELC Northwest Region regular-season crown, in the championship game. "So this season, the focus is to go out west and play more ranked teams than we ever have.
"I think this year is our coming out party in the MCLA, proving that we aren't just a good team on the East Coast, but that we're a good team nationally."
To achieve that end, the Flames need every last player on their roster — new recruits included. Though the graduation of six key contributors leaves some obvious holes to be filled, the team welcomes its biggest and most experienced recruiting class in program history to campus in this week.
"I think as the program continues to grow, hopefully you get better and better and draw more attractive candidates and recruits from year to year," McQuillan said. "We've definitely been able to do that this year more so than any other year, and we're getting kids who've played the sport for a long time and have been very good at it."
King, who played for Trinity Christian School in Fairfax, Va., heard about Liberty from friends who graduated before him and his assistant coach Joe Gargiulo, who played lacrosse for the Flames in 2013.
A dynamic midfielder and attackman, King takes pride in his scoring abilities and is constantly working to improve in the offensive zone. He looks forward to testing his knack for finding the back of the net at the collegiate level, bolstering the Flames' high-powered attack.
"I'm really excited and I've been looking forward to it," King said. "I've been training all summer, getting ready for the season, because I know I've got to fill some big shoes next year. I've really taken it seriously — been working with a personal trainer and conditioning to get ready — so I look forward to hopefully filling whatever role they need from me."
Mitchell took a more winding road to Liberty. The 22-year-old freshman jokes good-naturedly about being "the old guy on campus," but is grateful to be a different person in a very different place from where he was just a few years ago.
"I was going to Stony Brook University and playing lacrosse there, and at the time it was an NCAA Division I (DI) school and was (ranked in the) top 20 in the nation," Mitchell explained. "I didn't really have a relationship with God at that point, and those were my college party days, so to speak. I went there for one semester, and then God kind of hit me in the head."
He got involved with a church in Long Island, N.Y., and was mentored by a man whose son happened to attend Liberty. He plans to participate in the Flames' tryouts on Sept. 1.
Mitchell will most likely start out on defense, where graduation took the heaviest toll on the depth chart. No matter where McQuillan places him on the field, Mitchell enjoys mixing it up and getting in on as much action as possible.
With the attitude and ability of recruits like King and Mitchell, the Flames' audacious goals suddenly seem surprisingly within reach.
"Every season I've realistically said — and I think it's an honest description — that we've gotten twice as good as we were the year before," McQuillan said. "If this recruiting class turns out the way I think it will … we're going to have a very successful season, our most successful yet. I do think we're going to win an SELC (DI) championship and make it to nationals for the first time, and I do think we're a team that is capable of winning a national championship."