Liberty senior first baseman Aaron Grijalva
With a nucleus of experienced players returning, combined with a new coaching staff under first-year head coach Jim Toman, the 2008 Liberty Flames look to capture the Big South Championship and advance to a NCAA Regional for the first time since 2000 this upcoming spring.
The Flames return four of their top five hitters and three of their top five pitchers from a season ago. In addition, Toman inherits a squad with six of its eight position starters back from 2007.
"We have older players who have been in the Big South, and that should give us a chance to be successful," said the new Liberty skipper. "Anytime you can get experience on your team, it's a good thing. It is a plus."
The last two seasons, the Flames have reached the Big South title game only to come up short. With a seasoned, veteran team, Toman's squad looks to move beyond the title game this year.
"We're preparing for the season as if we are going to win the Big South regular season and the tournament, because we want to be in postseason play," stated Toman. "Our seniors have never been to a regional, and we want to get them to one."
The Flames return 18 letterwinners from last year's team, which posted its third-straight 30-plus win season with a 36-25 mark and finished with its best conference mark since 2000 at 14-7. With the addition of several players from injuries last season, Liberty will have eight seniors and 11 juniors on the roster, and should once again contend for the conference title.
"The coaching staff felt the guys worked really hard this fall and that our team has real good chemistry," stated Toman. "They've played together and we believe this is a group which can have success."
A Look at the Flames by Position:
The 2008 Liberty pitching staff seems well stocked, as Liberty returns most of its key members from last season's mound staff. In addition, the Flames will also welcome back several members who sat out last season due to injury.
"We are not sure how it will all fall into place, but [Pitching] Coach [Scott] Jackson has been working hard with our pitchers and we will see in preseason how things sort out," commented Toman on how the staff will be utilized this season.
The Liberty starting rotation looks solid with Dustin Umberger, Ryan Page, Clarence Nicely and David Stokes. Umberger, 5-4 in 2007 with a 4.83 ERA, could also see time as the team's closer.
"Dustin may end up in both roles, as we want to finish games. We would like to get a little stronger as the game goes. He could see himself in the bullpen on Friday and Saturday, and if he doesn't pitch, start on Sunday," explained Toman.
Stokes, a right-hander, led the Flames in with eight wins and posted a 4.82 ERA, in 93.1 innings in his first season with Liberty. Meanwhile, Toman and Jackson look to move left-hander Page, a senior, back into the starting rotation, after pitching in relief last season. "Page is a strike thrower and a left-hander," said the Liberty skipper. "This will allow us to start a right-hander on Friday, switch to a left-hander on Saturday and go back to a right-hander on Sunday."
Nicely, a junior who transferred to Liberty in 2007 from Auburn, rounds out the rotation. The right-hander appears to be close to 100% after missing last season due to an arm injury.
In relief, the Flames will have 12 pitchers, eight right-handers and four left-handers. From the right-side, Liberty returns Dane Beakler, Tyler Light and Andrew Wilson. Beakler, who is coming off of a lower arm injury in 2007, could see time as the squad's closer, while Light and Wilson saw significant innings last season and will be looked upon to provide quality innings in 2008.
Newcomers Brett Curll, a Maryland transfer, Rusty LaJoie, Jimmy Miller, Josh Remerowski and Joe Steinwedell, a transfer from Pepperdine, round out the Flames' staff from the right side.
Freshman Stephen Evans along with returners Grady Ihnat, Chase Vaden and Doug Wallace fill out the Liberty bullpen from the left side.
Cody Brown and Tommy Bussey, both infielders, may see double duty this spring with mound time as well.
Liberty seems set behind home plate this season with two-year starter Errol Hollinger once again assuming the bulk of the squad's catching duties.
"Errol had a very good fall," said Toman. "He knows how to handle a pitching staff. He's a very intelligent catcher.
"We need someone back there who can be another coach. I think Coach Jackson and he will work well together and Errol will be a real asset.
"This fall, he got a lot stronger in the weight room, and I look for him to have a breakout junior season."
Last season, would-be base stealers found Hollinger hard to run on, as the junior threw out a conference-leading 24 runners. At the plate, the junior ranked as the No. 22 toughest hitter to strike out in the country, striking out only once every 15.9 at bats, while hitting .281 with three home runs and 32 RBIs.
Also, sophomore Nathan Thompson and freshman Jeff Jefferson could see time at the position. Thompson hit .292 in 32 games last season. Jason Love, coming off an arm injury, will add depth at the position, as well as freshman Philip Locklear.
The Flames return starters at three of the four infield positions in 2008. Entering the season, shortstop is the only position Liberty will be looking to fill with the graduation of three-year starter Patrick Gaillard.
One of the familiar faces on the Flames' infield will be at first base, where Aaron Grijalva, a three-year starter, will return for his final season. One of the Big South's top hitters his first two seasons in a Liberty uniform, the senior looks for a return to form this spring after an injury-plagued campaign last year. After hitting over .340 as a sophomore and a freshman, Grijalva dropped to .250 in 2007, while playing in 41 games. He will be joined by junior Shawn Teufel and newcomers Jason Love and Doug Bream. A good defensive first baseman, Teufel saw action in 49 games last season, while Love and Bream are candidates to serve as the Flames' designated hitter.
At second base, Liberty seems set with the return of all-conference first-team performer Kenneth Negron and junior Bussey.
"Kenny is a good offensive player and has improved defensively this fall, while working with Coach [Nick] Schnabel," said Toman. "Tommy Bussey is a great attitude, work-ethic guy. He came on strong late in the fall and he may see some time as pitcher this season also."
Negron, a junior, finished fifth in the Big South with a .364 batting average and scored 50 runs, while spending time in the outfield and at second base last season. Bussey, who missed a portion of the year due to a groin injury, hit .284 in 23 games.
Aaron Phillips will take over at shortstop this season for Toman's squad. The senior, who started at the position in place of an injured Gaillard several times in 2007, captured the starting nod with a good fall.
"Aaron has a very accurate arm from short and plays well defensively," noted Toman. "He also hit about .330 this fall to win the job hands down, both defensively and offensively. " Freshman Aaron Parnell will back-up Phillips at the position.
Meanwhile, third base looks to be in capable hands, with the return of senior David Giammaresi and junior Brown. "The two of them are pretty even," said Toman. "Brown has shown good power this fall and a good arm, while Giammaresi put up good numbers last season. Brown's going to help us on the mound also, while Giammaresi could see time as the designated hitter."
Giammaresi earned all-Big South second- team honors last season, hitting .308 with 40 RBIs and 17 doubles, the fifth most in the conference. Brown, who also spent time at first base, hit .296 in 34 games in 2007.
Once again, talent will not be in short supply in the Flames' outfield this season. Liberty returns senior starters Garrett Young and P.K. Keller, while adding the speedy Tim Rotola in center field.
"We look for Young to be one of our best hitters this season, and he could turn out to be a pretty good draft pick in June," stated Toman. "Rotola, a junior college transfer, showed speed and plays well defensively, while Keller has the ability to put up some good numbers."
This spring, Young, a 2008 Brooks Wallace Player of the Year Preseason Watch List member, will move to left field after patrolling center field last season. The senior was a VaSID All-State first-team member and an earned all-conference mention by ranking among the Big South leaders in eight offensive categories. Young finished third in the conference and 62nd nationally with a .389 batting average in 50 games.
Rotola takes over the center field position after two years at Independence in Kansas. Last season, he was named a National Junior College Academic All-American. Meanwhile, Keller moved from center field to the corner outfield positions last season. A solid defensive outfielder, the senior recorded eight outfield assists in 2007. At the plate, Keller hit .328 with 42 RBIs. He ended the year by being selected to his second Big South All-Tournament team.
Freshman Joe Feeley will also see time in the Liberty outfield this season and is expected to serve as the designated hitter.
In addition, Jefferson, who may also see time at catcher, will be in the outfield and Toman believes he could see playing time early in his career.
Liberty will open its 2008 season against Notre Dame in the Clearwater Invitational on Feb. 22. The Flames will also face 2007 NCAA Regional participant Albany and Iowa in Clearwater on the opening weekend.
After a midweek game at Norfolk State, Toman's charges will kick off their home schedule with a three-game set, Feb. 29-March 1, at Worthington Stadium against Rider.
In March, the Flames will travel to Hattiesburg, Miss., for the Coca-Cola Classic, March 14-15. Liberty will face Cal-State Northridge on the tournament's opening day, while squaring off with host Southern Miss, a 2007 NCAA Regional participant, and Cal-State Northridge again on March 15.
Liberty will open its 21-game conference slate in late March by hosting defending Big South Champion Coastal Carolina in a three-game series (March 28-30). The Flames will also host conference rivals VMI (April 18-20) and High Point (May 16-18) at Worthington Stadium.
Liberty will host the 2007 Big South Baseball Championship at Dan E. Daniel Memorial Stadium in Danville, Va., from May 20-24. The Big South Champion receives the conference's automatic berth to a NCAA Regional, the following weekend (May 30-June 2).
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