Sunday, April 20, 2014

Finding ‘The Road to Omaha’

After a strong sophomore season, Ashton Perritt hopes to lead the Flames into uncharted territory

TURning heads — Baseball America ranked Perritt as the 98th-best prospect in all of college baseball. Photo provided

Turning heads — Baseball America ranked Perritt as the 98th-best prospect in all of college baseball. Photo provided

After a long offseason of practice and waiting, the date was finally Feb. 11, and only 10 hours remained before the Liberty Flames baseball team would leave for Jacksonville, Fla., to begin its 2014 season. As players, coaches and other staff prepared for the trip, junior Ashton Perritt stood only a few steps away from the Flames locker room in front of a wall decorated with a mural that perfectly summarizes the current mindset of the Liberty baseball team.

The mural includes a black, dotted line making its way across a U.S. map from Lynchburg, Va., to Omaha, Ne., the site of the annual NCAA College World Series. Above the line in bold, black letters is the phrase, “The Road to Omaha Starts Here.”

Those words might as well be printed on the front of Perritt’s jersey for the next few months, because after a strong sophomore season that included Big South Tournament MVP honors, it has become increasingly clear that he will be a huge part of the Flames future plans.

“We got a small taste of what we could do last year, and this year, we’re coming back stronger,” Perritt said. “We have confidence with the whole program that we want to go there. We’ve all been working our rears off for it.”

When Perritt, now a junior, arrived in Lynchburg, Va., for his freshman year of college, he was used to contributing to athletic teams in a big way. Whether he was earning football conference player of the year honors at Indiana’s Whiteland Community High School or roaming the outfield when spring came around, he seemed destined for college
sports stardom.

As a freshman in the spring of 2012, Perritt looked for every opportunity he could find to contribute to the Flames baseball team, mostly pinch running and providing defensive help in the outfield late in games. Two years later, he will now be filling very different roles for the Flames as the team’s closer on the mound and everyday center fielder, in addition to serving as one of the team’s four captains.

“Freshman year was really tough, to have a small role like that,” Perritt said. “It was a blessing to still contribute, but to do what I’m doing now, it just shows you how big God is and how humbling all of it is to be able to realize that you can work your way up in certain situations.”

Perritt and the Flames both had breakout seasons in 2013. As a team, Liberty won the Big South Conference Championship and advanced to an NCAA regional, defeating the Clemson University Tigers twice before ending its season the way it began, with a defeat at the hands of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks. As a sophomore two-way player, Perritt played a large part in his team’s success, taking over right field and emerging as one of the most reliable arms out of the Flames bullpen.

Although playing multiple positions is not uncommon in both professional and collegiate baseball, college teams are notorious for using multitalented players like Perritt as position players and turning them loose on the mound in the late innings of close games.

“I wish we had 35 players like him,” Flames Head Coach Jim Toman said. “I mean, he’s actually two players in one. He’s a position player and a pitcher. With the way the NCAA sets up rosters, you’re only allowed 35 guys, and if you have three or four injuries — like we do have — a two-way guy is very valuable because they’re hitting in the lineup, and they also can help us on the mound.”

As a former football cornerback who received attention from Big 10 schools such as the University of Michigan, Indiana University and Purdue University, Perritt is no stranger to adapting to different types of athletics. Despite his natural ability, he described how tough it can be to put in the necessary work in practice as a pitcher and a position player.

“I would say it’s definitely harder on your body, but I think you just have to be smarter with the way you work,” Perritt said. “You can’t throw as hard as you can from the outfield every day. I feel like it hasn’t really hindered me that much. I would say maybe it’s more tiring on my body, but I’ve learned to basically suck it up.”

Perritt mainly relied on a low-to-mid-90s fastball with a sharp curveball to get outs from the bullpen last season. This year, he plans to use his changeup more often to keep hitters honest, but according to Toman, Perritt will not have to change much to continue his success.

“If you throw 90 to 95 with a good breaking ball and a changeup and throw strikes and compete and work fast, we’re not going to tell him how to pitch,” Toman said. “We’re going to hand him the ball when it’s time to pitch and say go pitch.”

Perritt might get the opportunity to do just that when he steps onto the turf at the Liberty Baseball Stadium as a team captain for the first time Tuesday, Feb. 18 when the Flames take on Old Dominion University at 3 p.m.

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