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Flames Feature: Closing The Door
John, currently in a tie for fourth on the Flames' career saves list, has earned four saves this season. Even more impressive has been the right-hander's 1.96 ERA, a mark which ranks second in the Big South among relievers with more than three appearances (as of May 7). The senior reliever has also posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of over 3:1, striking out more than a batter per inning in the process. In fact, his 44 strikeouts place him in a tie for second on the team.
John enjoyed a stellar high school career, helping lead his Mainland Regional High School squad to three district championships in four years. The Garden State native also was named first team all-conference in both his junior and senior seasons, an honor which was earned in part by posting a 0.60 ERA during his final high school campaign. After that season, the senior had some uncommon factors to weigh when making his college decision.
"My brother (current Liberty outfielder Phil) and I wanted to go to the same school, and the only other school which had interest in us both was Penn State. We visited there, but their scholarship offer would have caused us to graduate with a large amount of debt."
After visiting the home of the Nittany Lions, uncertainty still reigned over the John's impending decision. That is, until the Liberty program came on the scene.
"It was the fall of my senior year, and I still did not know where I would end up going to college," John recalled. "My family and I found out about Liberty. We visited and talked to Coach Royer, who invited us to one of Liberty's winter showcase camps. Phil and I both went and did very well, Coach decided he wanted us and here we are."
As a freshman, the young right-hander experienced the proverbial growing pains most collegiate pitchers experience. There were bright spots however, as the hurler struck out better than a batter per inning, and showed signs of adjusting to his newfound role.
"I've been a starter everywhere else I've been except here. Even in summer baseball, I've been a starter," the Liberty senior stated. John's experience as a starting pitcher has served him well, despite only having one collegiate start. The reliever has often been asked to pitch multiple innings during his Liberty career, including a three-inning shutout stint against Richmond as a sophomore, a performance which earned him his first collegiate victory.
John's 2005 season contained several other highlights, including victories over Birmingham-Southern and Charleston Southern, two of the Flames' Big South Conference foes at the time. For the year, John totaled three wins in just 13 appearances, along with a much-improved 2.20 ERA. Once again, he showed glimpses of the potential which would later be fulfilled as an upperclassman, including during a non-conference game in late April.
"The game when I really turned the corner, as far as establishing myself and such, was at Wake Forest during my sophomore year," John commented. "We didn't have anyone else available, and I came in and threw the last three innings and did well."
The 2006 campaign was an eventful season for both John and Liberty baseball as a whole. The team enjoyed one of its most successful seasons, posting a Division I-high 39 victories, and John was an integral part of that. With his seven wins, 3.67 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 2-to-1 in his 25 appearances, the Garden State native helped stabilize the back end of the Liberty bullpen. However, the right-hander's two most critical appearances of his junior season may have been the very antithesis of his traditional role.
On May 19, the Flames traveled to High Point to open a series against their Big South conference rivals. Liberty needed a strong showing to ensure momentum, entering the following weekend's Big South Tournament. However, in the opening game, the Flames were dominated by High Point's Eammon Portice, who gave up just one earned run as Liberty lost, 11-6.
The following day, left-hander Ryan Page got the start for Liberty. When the Pennsylvania native ran into problems in the fourth, Liberty coach Matt Royer called for John to come out of the bullpen. The right-hander would pitch the remainder of the game, giving up four runs on six hits over those six frames of work, in one of his most lengthy outings as a member of the Flames' pitching staff. Liberty won the game 11-9, boosted by the performance that earned John his sixth victory of the season. The right-hander's outing helped push Liberty towards an eventual appearance in the Big South championship game a week later.
However, before the championship game appearance, John would have another key outing. The standout performance came on May 27, the final day of the 2007 Big South Baseball Tournament. In an elimination game, with the Winthrop Eagles looming as Liberty's opponent, Coach Royer gave John the ball for his first collegiate start, a memory John counts as the top moment he has enjoyed during his Liberty baseball career.
"The game I got to start against Winthrop, and getting the win against them that day, was a defining moment," observed John. "It was probably one of my best memories on the field. It was a very hot day, and after the third inning, it was all guts, and I just had to battle."
Coming into his senior season, the team had high expectations for their closer, and John has fulfilled those very well. The hard-throwing reliever spoke briefly about the process of growth, and of fulfilling his potential as a pitcher.
"For me, it's really just experience and being out on the mound. The biggest thing I've learned in college is that you have to believe in your stuff, and in the ability God gave you. More than likely, the one with more confidence is the one who is going to win the battle."
Now, with the 2007 season drawing to a close, the career of one of Liberty baseball's team leaders is ending as well. First, John and his teammates will have another opportunity at a Big South championship, as they travel to Rock Hill, S.C., to participate in the conference tournament, which will begin May 23.
Despite that particular looming challenge, the prospect of graduation is already in the minds of John and his fellow seniors. As the business finance major nears the day of his college graduation, when he will be awarded his degree in business finance, he is uncertain of what his future will hold. However, he is aware of how he got to where he is today, and this attitude will no doubt serve him well as he progresses into the next stage of his life.
"I owe everything I have received to Jesus Christ, my parents and everyone who has been supportive," said John. "I really appreciate them and all that they have done for me."
By Brad Salois
Liberty Athletic Media Relations