Oct 10, 2006

Liberty grads who thrive beyond the Mountain

by Dave Thompson

“Eighteen highly competitive NCAA Division-I athletic programs for men and women,” beams Liberty University’s Chancellor Dr. Jerry Falwell to thousands of prospective students.

Liberty’s athletics program is excelling, and at barely 35 years old, there are already hopes of it taking its place in the upper echelon of NCAA programs across the country.

Liberty’s athletics program began only one year after the school came into existence when the men’s basketball team played its first season in 1972-1973. Football was not far behind, opening as a junior varsity team in 1973 and becoming a full-fledged NCAA member in 1980.

Since then, spectacular years from the ladies basketball team, club hockey and cross country have helped to solidify Liberty’s place in the national and international spotlights.

“We’ve come a long way in 35 years and there’s still a long way to go to catch up, but I think we’re ahead of the game,” said Athletics Dir-ector Jeff Barber.

The football program has produced notable NFL standouts such as Dwayne Carswell and Eric Green. Carswell enjoyed 13 seasons with the Denver Broncos and has the distinction of being the only Flames alumnus to compete in a Super Bowl, winning with the Broncos in 1998 and 1999.

Green was a first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1990 and was selected for consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in 1993 and 1994. He currently coaches tight ends for the University of Central Florida.

Last season, when the Green Bay Packers were short on running backs, Liberty graduate Samkon Gado stepped in and became a dependable runner for the Packers. He was traded early this season to the Houston Texans, where he hopes to see even greater playing time.

Despite the success of former athletes, the football team had been slumping in recent years. Last year’s disastrous 1-10 season prompted the hire of Head Coach Danny Rocco, who was associate head football coach at the University of Virginia, to turn the program around.

Now he sports a scoring defense ranked fifth in the country, which is led by standout defenders Manny Rojas and Stevie Ray Lloyd. He is also molding a solid offense starring quarterback Brock Smith and running back Rashad Jennings.

Liberty’s football program has put on an impressive showing this season and stands at a much-improved 3-2 on the eve of Homecom-ing.

The new state-of-the-art field turf and the brand new Williams Football Operations Center will provide coaches with useful recruiting tools.

“(Students) are not going to come here because we have a good football team, but it’s going to be a big part of the perception of the university,” Rocco said.

Basketball occupies a special spot on Liberty’s campus, due in large part to the recent success of the ladies team. In the spring of 2005, the Lady Flames stormed into the national tournament and were dubbed a “Cinderella team.”

They eventually fell in the Sweet Sixteen to top ranked Louisiana State University. Katie Feenstra, who was taken in the first round in the WNBA draft by the Connecticut Sun and immediately traded to the San Antonio Silver Stars, led the team that season.

Head Coach Carey Green leads the Big South conference in overall wins (166) and during his seven-year tenure, the team has boasted a .697 winning percentage.

However, Green did not credit himself with his success. “Any successful athlete understands the importance of discipline,” he said. “This university enforces strict order and discipline. Is there a secret? No. It’s God’s blessing.”

The men’s basketball squad has been consistently steady lately, having winning conference records in three of Head Coach Randy Dunton’s last four seasons, with the exception of last year when the team finished 7-23.

Players like senior guard Larry Blair and sophomore guard Anthony Smith stand out as potentially huge performers.

Even in the midst of a difficult season last year, Blair established himself as a powerhouse as Liberty’s sole player to reach a double-digit average in points per game, finishing with a 22.6 average. Smith came in second averaging 9.2 points per game.

Perhaps one of the biggest success stories on campus is that of the men’s hockey team. Liberty’s hockey team has not yet qualified for the NCAA, partially because of the lack of a women’s team, but the men compete at the highest level outside of it – Division I of the American Collegiate Hockey Assoc-iation.

After finishing second in the ACHA D-II championship last season, the club moved seamlessly into D-I competition by starting off its season 5-1.

The new LaHaye Ice Center provides an on-campus home for the team, eliminating the need for students to travel to Roanoke for the team’s home games.

This fall, students will witness the rebirth of Liberty wrestling, which has not existed on this campus since 1994 after it was discontinued at perhaps the pinnacle of its performance.

The team had joined the NCAA at the Division-I level five years prior and was ranked 32nd nationally after the 1991 season. However, due to technicalities that included the move to a conference which did not support wrestling, the sport was cut from the athletics program.

“Our program from 1974 to 1994 was the premier sport on this campus,” said Head Coach Jesse Castro, who was contacted by Falwell after a multi-year process saw the sport finally approved.

Castro has begun to build a program that he hopes will be a national competitor. “As a sport, we’re always fighting for position and recognition,” he said. But he does not want his sport emphasized at the expense of others, such as football. “I think they can feed off each other,” he said.

Castro has built up a solid recruiting class which ranks in the top 25 nationally. Among the elite recruits is Christian Smith, an ACC champion, Tim Harner, who ranked ninth nationally, and numerous other state and regional champions.

“Our theme this whole year has been, ‘If you build, they will come,’” he said. “They’re here.”

These are but a few of the numerous sports that Liberty offers and even excels in. Baseball, Men’s and Wom-en’s soccer, track and field and cross country — which features nationally ranked runner Josh McDougal — are all sports at Liberty which represent the level of competition that proves that they can and should be taken seriously.

Aside from the level of competition, Rocco summed up his philosophy of sporting programs in general.

“(Athletics) really is the best platform to service any ministry, to service any mission, because it just appeals to all people – youth and old,” he said.


Contact Dave Thompson at dbthompson@liberty.edu.

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