Sunday, September 21, 2014

Swinging for the fences

Liberty’s baseball team hopes to build on its success after winning the Big South

The 2013 season was a monumental year for Liberty University baseball, as they won their first Big South Tournament since 2000. The team hopes the 2014 season will bring even higher acievements.

After being crowned Big South champions, Liberty was chosen to compete in the Columbia Regional, which included prestigious programs such as Clemson University and the University
of South Carolina.

key departure — The Flames hope to continue their success this season despite the loss of players such as Trey Wimmer (above). Photo credit: Ruth Bibby

Key departure — The Flames hope to continue their success this season despite the loss of players such as Trey Wimmer (above). Photo credit: Ruth Bibby

“Prior to last year, none of the guys on the team had been to a regional,” Flames Head Coach Jim Toman said. “I’ve been to 14 of them, so I was proud that I could just get these guys to feel what it’s like to be in a regional and have the opportunity to play in an environment like South Carolina.”

The feeling of reaching a regional final left Toman and the players wanting more for next season, and they have set high expectations for themselves and the school.

“I think anything less than a regional (appearance) would be disappointing,” Flames first baseman Alex Close said. “Our goal is to not only get to a regional, but also win a regional, and take that next step.”

Close’s teammate, Ashton Perritt, echoed Close’s desires of wanting to continue the momentum from last season and improve on the success of the program.

“We ended (ranked) 26th, and we know we are a top-25 program, and we are working hard at it everyday,” Perritt said.

“We know what we are capable of, and we want to go further this year. We think we have a lot more in the tank, and we’re working at it every day, and we know what we got to do. We just got to prove it now.”

Toman sees the upward trend of the baseball program continuing and has attributed the major boost in the program to the newly constructed Liberty Baseball Stadium.

“We’ve already seen a new interest in even better players across the country, some of the elite players across the country,” Toman said. “They’ve heard from word of mouth from others teams that have played here, it’s considered one of the top 10 (stadiums) in the country, maybe even as high as the top five.”

Close expressed his gratitude for having the opportunity to play for Liberty and in the new stadium in front of excited fans.

“It’s cool, because the crowd gets excited, and we feed off of that for sure,” Close said. “It’s cool to see all of the people come out and support.”

Liberty hosted fourth-ranked University of Virginia (UVA) last season and will be hosting Virginia Tech and Kent State University, both of which made the College World Series last season, in 2014.

“Before the game, it’s hard to believe,” Perritt said. “I grew up watching these teams on TV, but when you’re up there, I realize how good of a program we are here at Liberty. It’s humbling, but it’s also great to know that we finally made it, and we are able to compete with these guys.”

According to Toman, playing against those teams and in the NCAA College World Series, which aired on ESPN, has been a huge boost to the program’s image across the country.

“Just going down (to South Carolina) was an incredible experience for our players and a great platform for our program and our mission,” Toman said. “I mean we were on ESPN four straight days … so now we get calls all the time (of people saying), ‘Yeah we saw you on ESPN,’ so that was awesome for our school.”

Toman explained that only one or two teams from the Big South usually make it to the NCAA College World Series per year, but in conferences such as the ACC or SEC, eight or nine teams often make the tournament. With the new stadium and recent success, Toman believes that a move to a bigger conference could really help move the team to even greater heights.

“We can get to regionals and super regionals and Omaha from (the Big South),” Toman said. “But when you’re in a little bit better conference, you have a better chance to get an at-large bid. … I would say that if we could get into anther league that has a really good RPI and baseball teams, that would help us.”

Perritt reiterated Toman’s point about the possibility of moving into a more competitive conference.

“Right now, we are a little overlooked in the baseball world, just because of the conference we are in,” Perritt said. “I mean there are more competitive conferences, but (the Big South is) still a competitive conference, and we are hoping to move up.”

Despite being in the Big South, Liberty has still had the opportunity to play nationally ranked teams and has been competitive in many of those games.

“It’s cool to be playing teams that are playing in Omaha every year,” Close said. “My freshman year we beat (UVA and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). Last year, we were a hit away from beating North Carolina, so it’s just cool to be able to play those teams, those guys are really good. You know how it is in baseball, anybody can beat anybody on any given day.”

With a majority of the team returning next season, Toman believes that the success the team found last year is just the beginning.

“We have over half the team back and they all had a chance to dog pile there at the end at the Big South tournament,” Toman said. “To beat a program like Clemson who … was ranked 14th in the country, that was huge for our program. The guys now know what it takes to get into a regional, and the idea now is to continue that and then try to win a regional.

Then if you can win a regional, it’s best two out of three for a chance to go to Omaha. So you get closer and closer, and we hope that the program now feeds off of that.”

At the end of the day, Toman has been thankful for all of the opportunities the school has given him during his six years as head coach at Liberty.

“It’s been humbling, because you usually don’t have this type of setup if you’re a college baseball coach, and we’ve got everything right here,” Toman said.

The Flames will go on the road to face North Florida in their season opener Friday, Feb. 14 at 3 p.m.

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