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A Good Time to be at Liberty
Article by Mark Etheridge
Reprinted by permission of SEBaseball.com
Watch out Big South, here come the Flames.
Schools have tried to lure Jim Toman away from South Carolina for years. As the Gamecock hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, Toman received a ton of credit for powerful offensive clubs who put loads of talent into pro ball each season. Toman had his opportunities to leave for a head coaching position but always stayed put. After all, he had a great gig already.
That is, until this year when Toman finally took the bait.
So why Liberty? What could they offer to make him leave a coveted spot as Ray Tanner's top assistant?
"Athletic Director Jeff Barber stepped up big time," Toman told SEBaseball.com Tuesday. "He committed to provide what we need to become a top 25 baseball program. He wants to win the Big South and make Regionals consistently. He gave me the resources I was looking for -- salaries for assistants, recruiting budgets, a plan for facility upgrades. Plus, this is a great environment -- this is a Christian school -- for my wife and kids. Those things all added up to a great opportunity."
Liberty does have an opportunity in a challenging and improving league. Coastal Carolina has established itself as a nationally renown squad with two number one Regional seeds in three seasons. Winthrop has been consistently a top of the conference team themselves. Liberty sees itself as joining that tier.
The Flames are not far off that pace either. Former coach Matt Royer got Liberty close but in his five seasons never tasted a conference title or Regional berth.
But they were relatively close. Toman is not rebuilding a bottom-dweller like many new coaches face in year one.
"Coach Royer did a good job here," Toman said. "He was here five years and won a lot of games. They won 39 two years ago and 36 last year. So we are in pretty good shape. There is talent in the program. We will try to continue to take in the direction he started and get to the next step which is a Regional."
Toman was given ample resources to lure quality assistant coaches. A master recruiter himself, the head coach brought in a young aggressive staff that will scour the nation for talent.
Nick Schnabel is the hitting coach and infield instructor. He comes from Army where his recruiting background will be similar to what Liberty coaches face.
"Nick Schnabel was highly recommended by everyone who knows him," Toman said. "He is a high-energy guy who had a tremendous career at East Carolina and is one of the top young up-and-coming coaches in the nation. He is a man of solid Christian morals and will be an asset to Liberty University and our baseball program.
Scott Jackson will serve as the Flames' pitching coach. Jackson joins the Liberty coaching staff after five seasons as the pitching coach at UNC Wilmington.
"Scott Jackson is a top of the line pitching coach who comes highly recommended by many coaches and scouts throughout the east coast," said Toman. "He is a man of high character and will be a great addition to our staff."
Notice a trend? How many Universities stress the type of character the coaches have? Well, Liberty is not your average baseball program.
Liberty University's stated mission is to develop Christ-centered men and women with the values, knowledge, and skills essential to impact tomorrow's world. Founded by Dr. Jerry Falwell in 1971, Liberty is a private, coed institution located in Lynchburg, Virginia.
As one might imagine, Liberty is recruiting from a smaller pool than a big state school.
"We are looking for Christian kids," Toman explained, "or at least those open to a Christian environment. We are looking for a particular kind of kid but one that also a high level Division I talent. It is a different for me than at South Carolina. But recruiting is recruiting."
Although Virginia is fertile soil to farm for talent, Liberty will go wherever the talent takes them.
"Liberty is the largest private school in Virginia," Toman said. "There is no in-state tuition break so in costs as much for a Virginia kid to come here as it does an out of state kid. I think that is why there was just four Virginia kids on the roster. I would like to get Virginia kids but we'll go nationally to get who we need. And now we have the budget to do that."
While some changes have been immediate, others take time. Liberty needs considerable work done to Worthington Stadium. There are no lights and no seatbacks. Frankly, they have a lot of catching up to do to compete with facilities like those at Winthrop.
But Toman is no stranger to recruiting well despite sub par facilities. While an assistant at North Carolina State, he brought in quality players despite having one of the worst facilities in the ACC. After he left Raleigh, Doak Field was renovated.
At South Carolina, Sarge Frye Field is a great place to watch a game but as for as amenities and recruiting drawing points, it ranks pretty low in the SEC pecking order. Ironically, as Toman leaves Columbia the Gamecocks are building a new stadium.
But the commitment to upgrade is coming. Success by schools like Cal State Fullerton and Coastal Carolina have given smaller schools hope that they can compete in baseball. Liberty is stepping up with their checkbook as opposed to whining for weather legislation.
"If you have 11.7 scholarships, nice facilities, a strong academic system, and hard-working coaches, you can have success no matter who you are," Toman said. "College baseball has never been better. I think with the television and the ticket sales, the sport is healthy. These schools see what others have done and feel they can emulate. Jeff Barber was at South Carolina and saw it first hand. He wants to bring that here. The football teams is in the top 25 in Division I-AA with an eye on potentially moving to Division I. The whole program has a top 25 D-I philosophy.
"Enrollment is up. Lynchburg is a neat town. The whole school and area is growing at a rapid pace. We have a little of everything for everyone. We have a Christian environment and an administration who wants to win. It is a good time to be at Liberty."