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Veteran Squad Returns For Another Run At The Record Books
Those familiar with college athletics have heard the story time and time again. A senior-laden squad pulls out all the stops to leave its legacy during its final go-around, setting numerous records to help take a program to new heights.
Elevating a program to a new level was the story of the 2006 Lady Flames' softball season as Liberty set 10-team and six-individual records, including tying the school record for victories in a season.
Liberty finished 2006 with a 41-23 record, marking the second time in the history of the program the Lady Flames have surpassed the 40-win plateau. Liberty tied the 1999 squad, which finished the year with a 41-25 record.
For the second-consecutive season, Liberty used the "long ball" to aid in its efforts as the Lady Flames demolished their 2005 record of 43 home runs with 66 round trippers in 2006, good enough to rank ninth in the nation in home runs per game (1.03).
Liberty also set school records in runs scored (292), doubles (85), RBI (263), strikeouts (351) and fielding percentage (.963).
However, the only thing which doesn't mesh with the afore mentioned storyline is that no player rode off into the sunset at the end of the 2006 season as Liberty's record-breaking squad was made up of seven juniors, six sophomores and six freshmen.
Lady Flames head coach Paul Wetmore, who was honored at the close of 2006 by being named VaSID Coach of the Year for the fourth time, finds himself in a position most head coaches can only dream of.
Liberty returns 13 letterwinners and all of its starters from 2006 for another go-around at rewriting Liberty's record books.
"I certainly like the prospect of having another great year as we have five seniors and 13 letterwinners returning from last year's squad," stated Wetmore. "I feel very comfortable with our level of experience and I know that they are still hungry.
"I hope that they will press towards a great finish, as I know the character of these players and the fact each one of them wants to finish on a high mark. I think last year was truly a stepping stone for us coming into this season."
The senior quintet of Beth Hensley, Dawn Jeffs, Terra Lowe, Jessica Moore and Sarah Swor have helped in returning the Lady Flames softball program to its "glory days" during the late ‘90s when Liberty posted five-straight 30-plus winning seasons, including the previously-mentioned year of 1999.
However, Wetmore upped the ante for this experienced squad as the program's skipper has assembled the most challenging schedule during his 14-year tenure.
The Lady Flames will face an entirely different schedule than years past, including games against six preseason Top 25 programs and trips as far as Hawaii, in hopes of preparing this squad for another run at a Big South title.
"I think the schedule we have put together this year is going to be one that is going to prepare us well for the challenges of the Big South," commented Wetmore.
The 14th-year head coach knows that there are two key ingredients in helping his squad continue its record-setting ways – solid hitting and a deep and consistent pitching staff.
Over the last two years, Liberty has become well known for its long-ball prowess as the Lady Flames have hit a combined 109 home runs. However, Wetmore knows it is going to take more than swinging for the fences to play against the caliber of opponent his squad will face in 2007.
"We talk with our team on a regular basis after every game about home runs and the fact you can't live by them," remarked Wetmore. "We don't want to be known as a home run hitting team. We want to be know as a good hitting team that hits a lot of home runs.
"We have worked very hard this offseason on some techniques which will solidify our overall batting average and help us drive in more runs. We are working towards being more consistent in our hitting. In order to win games, you need to produce runs and they generally don't come by way of the home run."
He also knows the success of an entire softball season can often rest on the arms of a pitching staff. Aware of that fact, the head coach has assembled one of the deepest staffs in the history of the program.
"It is a comforting feeling as you can never be deep enough in pitching," remarked Wetmore. "We constantly look at pitching in the recruiting cycle as you are just one injury away from crippling your staff."
Lowe and Swor both won 16 games last year, tying for third best in school history. Newcomer Sarah Ellis also made quite an impression during her rookie campaign as the hurler finished the year with a 9-1 record, including wins in seven out of her first nine starts.
"Our seniors have experience as they have been there and done that," said Wetmore of Lowe and Swor. "They have faced a lot of good competition and have been very successful. Yet, both of them suffered at the end of the year last season because of overuse. We didn't have the depth we wanted. I think they have a real hunger in them as they want to go out on top."
Swor, a 5-6 right-hander, has been a mainstay for Liberty during his career as she enters the season ranked third in school history in wins (42), innings pitched (562.0) and shutouts (13) and fourth in strikeouts (419). Last year, the three-time Big South Pitcher of the Week finished the year 16-11 with 16 complete games and 138 strikeouts in a team-high 183.1 innings of work.
"Sarah has been a record setter for us here at Liberty," said Wetmore. "She throws a variety of pitches, including a great change-up, and we are expecting her to do the same this year. She has been a mainstay over the last several years and we expect her to pick up right where she left off last year."
Added to Swor's numbers inside the circle, came a surprising offensive burst from the hurler. Swor entered the year with just two hits in 10 career plate appearances, but finished the season with 10 doubles, five home runs, 23 RBI and a .410 slugging percentage.
Following right behind Swor is fellow senior hurler Lowe who posted a career year in 2006, setting new personal bests in wins (16), ERA (2.20), complete games (14), innings pitched (168.2) and strikeouts (155), the latter marking the third most in school history.
"Terra is a driven athlete who had a banner year last year," commented Wetmore. "However, I know she wants to have an even greater season this year. She has added a few new pitches to her sequence, which should make her more effective."
Ellis, who stands an imposing 5-11 inside the circle, is one of the hardest throwing hurlers on the staff, slinging the ball around 65 MPH. Last year, Ellis posted the fourth-best ERA in school history by a rookie (2.71) and the sixth-highest first-year win total at nine victories. However, the rookie struggled a bit during the later part of the year, recording just two victories during the final 33 games of the year.
But with a season under her belt, Wetmore is confident the sophomore is ready for even greater heights this year.
"I really feel comfortable about Sarah Ellis and I think she could have the opportunity to be the best pitcher we have ever had at Liberty," said Wetmore. "She has great leverage and good movement on the ball. She seems to be more consistent this year and has certainly matured as a pitcher."
Never having too much depth in pitching, Wetmore has added a fourth hurler to the mix as freshman Dana Wheeler will certainly give the Lady Flames some variety in the circle as the only left-hander on the staff.
Wheeler, a 5-4 rookie from Watkins High School in Pataskala, Ohio, finished her career as Watkins' career leader in ERA and home runs, despite battling injuries which limited her playing time as a sophomore and a senior. However, she posted an expectional junior campaign with a 24-3 record and 0.33 ERA to help the Warriors finish the year ranked fourth in the state.
"Dana is a left-handed, drop-ball pitcher, who gives us a balance we have not had in a long time," commented Wetmore. "She is completely opposite from what we see in everyone else and she is an aggressive pitcher who could see significant time."
A trio of players will be behind the plate catching the pitches thrown by the Lady Flames' pitching staff, led by returning two-time Big South all-conference selection, Ashley Williams.
Williams, Liberty's Rookie of the Year in 2005, suffered no sophomore slump in her second year as she broke the school RBI record (61) to go along with 14 home runs, a .330 batting average, 14 doubles and a .600 slugging percentage. The Lilburn, Ga., native also had the strongest throwing arm in the Big South, as she led all league catchers by throwing out 24 would-be base stealers.
"Ashley is a hard out, which makes her a great number-four hitter in our line-up," noted Wetmore. "She loves the challenge and she has the potential to put up some large numbers this season. As a catcher, she showed marked improvement last year and her rapport with our pitching staff grows each day."
Vying for time behind Williams will be a pair of rookies in Michelle Fridey and Taylor McCarty. Fridey, the younger sister of junior utility player Claire Fridey, was a four-time first-team all-league honoree at Williamsville South High School. She set the New York state record with 64 hits in her senior year and is one of only two players in state history to tally 200 career hits.
"Michelle has the opportunity to be a very good catcher as she is very solid and has a very strong arm," stated Wetmore. "She has great power and there is certainly a bright future ahead for her, as I think she will see ample time to spell Ashley behind the plate."
McCarty, one of two walk-ons on the team, is a four-year letterwinner out of Middletown High School in Middletown, Md. "Taylor is a very capable person behind the plate and could come in off the bench to give us some quality innings," remarked Wetmore.
Circling the Lady Flames' infield will be a veteran squad of players, including two who started every game in 2006 at their position.
Beth Bennett returns at first base for Liberty after starting all 64 games and earning team Rookie of the Year honors. She ranked fourth on the squad with a .277 batting average and added 20 runs scored, eight doubles, three home runs, 38 RBI and a .364 slugging percentage during her first year with the team.
"Beth Bennett is a great first baseman as she plays the game hard," said Wetmore. "She goes out there defensively and gives you great innings. She has worked hard on her hitting in the offseason as she wants to stay more consistent this year."
Joining Bennett on the right side of the infield will be Dawn Jeffs, who made an immediate impact after transferring to Liberty last year. The returning second baseman set school records with 86 hits and 224 at bats and ranked 26th in the nation in doubles. She also added to the Lady Flames' home run total with seven round trippers after having not hit a homer during her first two collegiate seasons.
"Dawn is a good second baseman who has great range and lateral movement," stated Wetmore of his Big South first-team all-conference infielder. "She is a solid number-two hitter as she can bunt, slap, slam and hit the ball with power."
Freshman J'nae Jefferson will be the new face on the Lady Flames' infield as the rookie is slated to take over at shortstop. Jefferson was a four-year varsity starter who helped Cabell Midland High School of Barboursville, W.Va., to three state runner-up finishes and a state title as a junior. She batted over .400 during her last two seasons in high school, including a career-best .470 as a junior.
"J'nae is a hard-nosed infielder who gets down on the ball well," said Wetmore. "She has a good back hand as a shortstop and has a very strong throw from deep in the hole."
Back for another go-around at the "hot corner" will be sophomore Courtney Johnson. During her rookie campaign, Johnson was solid for the Lady Flames defensively, posting the second-best fielding percentage (.950) by a starting third baseman since 1994. However, she was limited offensively with only 40 at bats.
"Courtney will anchor our efforts at third base," said Wetmore, "And with a year under her belt, we think her hitting will improve and she can be a regular contributor to our offense."
Vying for playing time in the infield will be freshman Kristina Jerry, who has surprised the coaching staff and could challenge for playing time during her first year. The walk-on out of Mayfield Secondary High School in Ontario, Canada, could be Wetmore's "‘go-to' player off the bench in the infield. She is going to press some people for playing time and I believe she has a bright future at Liberty."
A major change in the Lady Flames' outfield will be the repositioning of Jessica Moore from shortstop to center field. Wetmore made the move to shore up his defensive efforts up the middle, especially in the shallow parts of the outfield.
Moore was the only player in the Big South to finish the year ranked in four different national statistical categories. She led the team and finished second in the nation with 74 runs scored and broke her own school record with 21 home runs to rank 10th in the nation in the category. The two-time Big South first-team all-conference selection also led the squad with a .399 batting average and was named the VaSID Player of the Year, becoming the fifth player to do so in program history.
"Jess is going to be our center fielder due to her speed. She can get to anything with her aggressive play," commented Wetmore on the 2007 Big South Preseason Player of the Year. "Offensively, we have moved her to the third spot in our lineup, which should allow her to drive in more runs."
The remaining outfield positions will be up for grabs during the year with the stronger offensive players seeing more playing time.
Leading the charge for time is senior, Beth Hensley who looks to finish off her career as the starter in left field. Hensley finished fifth on the team last year with a .253 batting average and was fourth with 21 runs scored.
"Beth adds great foot speed to our team and three years of playing experience," stated Wetmore. "She has a very capable bat and is someone who we will look to keep in the line-up."
Returning starters from last year's outfield, Jessica Leary and Shannon McKain, will also be looking for playing time in 2007 as well.
McKain started all 64 games in center field last season, but her .208 batting average was almost 80 points lower than she hit her freshman year. She batted .284 with seven home runs and a .497 slugging percentage as a rookie.
"Shannon has the strongest arm on the team and is a solid defender," said Wetmore. "But, she is coming off a year where she didn't hit the ball quite as well and we are looking for her to be a bit more consistent."
Leary started 57 games last year, with all but two coming in right field, and finished the year ranked fifth on the team with 21 runs scored and tied for the team lead with four outfield assists.
"She played very well defensively in the outfield. After never having played the outfield before, she has developed herself into a solid outfielder," remarked Wetmore. "Offensively, she has worked hard on her swing and really started to hit the ball well during the fall season."
Also vying for time in the outfield will be a pair of junior role players in Claire Fridey and Rachel Love. Fridey and Love were two of Liberty's top three reserves last year as Love saw time in 29 games, scoring 11 runs in mostly pinch-running roles, and Fridey added 26 appearances as the designated player.
"Claire adds some variety to our line-up with her left-handed bat and is one of the most enthusiastic players on the squad," added Wetmore. "Rachel is the consummate utility outfielder who can give us some quality innings at any of the positions."
Facing the afore mentioned 17-player roster is a grueling schedule that no other Liberty squad has ever faced. The Lady Flames will square off against preseason Top 25 teams No. 2 Tennessee, No. 4 Northwestern, No. 6 Oregon State, No. 10 California, No. 11 Michigan and No. 20 Louisville during the course of 2007.
Liberty's usual tournament action, which had included the Seahawk Classic and the Pirate Clash, has been upgraded to the KSU Classic, hosted by Kennesaw State, North Carolina's Tar Heel Classic, the Louisville Classic and a trip to the "Big Island" to participate in a pair of Spring Break Hawaii tournaments.
Wetmore is hoping the challenging schedule will prepare his squad for an increasingly challenging Big South Conference season. Last year, the Big South finished the year ranked 12th out of 31 conferences and Liberty cracked the Top 100 by finishing 85th in the final RPI rankings (as reported by Warren Nolan's web site rankings).
"The reason why we scheduled things this way, is that the better teams you play, the better you will be," stated Wetmore about his 2007 slate. "Along with that, people start to respect the program more when you play those types of teams. Our five seniors have helped build our program and they deserve the opportunities to play some of the best teams in the country."
Big South play will also see a change this year as the conference has moved to three-game weekend series. Wetmore believes pitching could decide the league title this year as the new format will require depth, which is a something Liberty believes it possesses in four-person deep staff.
With all the records the 2006 squad set, the 2007 team would rather puts its name in the record books for another reason – becoming just the second Lady Flames' squad to claim a Big South championship and advancing to the NCAA Regionals for the second time since 2002.
Liberty's talent pool seems to be deep for the 2007 campaign, and the Lady Flames' five seniors hope the storybook ending to their careers includes them leaving with a championship banner and rings to add to their already heralded marks, which could last for years to come inside the school's record books.