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2009 Baseball Preview

February 13, 2009  Lynchburg, VA  RSS
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Senior Cody Brown was named to the 2008 Big South All-Tournament squad last season.

Senior Cody Brown was named to the 2008 Big South All-Tournament squad last season.

With the Liberty Flames baseball team one week away from the opening of their 2009 season, LibertyFlames.com takes a look at the upcoming year. The Flames open their season on Feb. 20 against No. 12 Ole Miss in the Coca-Cola Classic in Mobile, Ala.

After a strong finish in Head Coach Jim Toman's first season at Liberty, the Flames enter 2009 looking to win a Big South Championship and advance to a NCAA Regional.

Last season, Liberty went 13-3-1 during the month of May to finish the year with a 36-25-1 mark, the best record under a first-year coach in program history. For the third straight year, the Flames finished as the Big South Conference's runner-up. Liberty won four consecutive games by double digits, including beating Coastal Carolina, 13-2, to force a second championship game.

"Last year, we were only five innings from an NCAA Regional," stated Toman. "This year, we hope to take the next step and put ourselves in a position to earn an at-large berth or to win the Big South Conference tournament.

"Every year, our goal is to earn a spot in the College World Series, so we obviously need to first earn a regional berth.

"There are 19 new players on this year's roster, so it will be a much different Liberty team than it was a year ago. There will be a lot of new faces in the line-up and on the mound. It may take a while to figure out the different roles for each player."

Besides the new faces, the Flames return 11 letterwinners from last season, including all-conference and 2009 Brooks Wallace Player of the Year Watch list member, Errol Hollinger, and the Big South strikeout leader from a season ago, Dustin Umberger.

"As a whole, our staff is pretty optimistic about this team after working with them in the fall," notes the Flames' second-year skipper. "We seem to have a tough group of kids who want to work hard and play hard. If they go out and play like madmen all year long, then we just might surprise a lot of people. It should be an exciting team."

A Look at the Flames by Position 

Pitching

After setting the school's team record for strikeouts last season, Liberty will look to replace right-hander David Stokes and left-hander Ryan Page on its mound staff. The senior duo was each picked in the 2008 Major League Draft.

"Dustin Umberger will be our No. 1 starter," stated Toman. "Steven Evans, Mark Swanson and Shawn Teufel should round out our rotation."

Umberger enters his senior season off another solid campaign in 2008. The right-hander finished with an 8-3 mark, two saves and 3.80 ERA in 83 innings of work last season. Umberger tied for second in the conference in wins and led the league in strikeouts with 88, while walking only 19 batters. For the second consecutive year, he earned Big South All-Tournament honors with a complete game victory in the 2008 Big South Baseball Championship.

Evans, a left-hander, moves into starting full-time after splitting time between starting and the bullpen in his freshman season. The sophomore posted a 3-3 record in 2008, with three saves and a 4.07 ERA in 59 2/3 innings. He struck out 55 during his first season of college baseball.

Swanson and Teufel will be newcomers to the Liberty mound staff. Swanson transfers after two seasons at Young Harris, while Teufel moves to the pitcher's mound after beginning his Flames' career as a first baseman.

"We have several returning pitchers who should give us a lot of quality innings and a variety of options out of the bullpen," commented Toman. "Andrew Wilson, Tyler Light, Brett Curll, Chase Vaden and Joe Steinwedell all had reallyproductive falls and could even work their way into the rotation."

Senior first baseman Cody Brown could also see time on the mound, along with junior college transfers Carter Browning, Zane Bator and Curran Redal. Newcomer Lance Howe fills out the left side of the Liberty pen, while first year Flames Chris McDougal, Austin Poretz and Fernand Dullivan round out the staff from the right side.

Dane Beakler is coming off of Tommy John surgery and may pitch late in the season.

Catcher

"Our catching corps should be one of our team strengths," asserted Toman, a former catcher. "Errol Hollinger, who will be a starting for the fourth consecutive year, is definitely our No. 1 at the position. He is one of the top senior catchers in the country and is on the pre-season Brooks Wallace Player of the Year Watch List.

"However, Trey Wimmer and Nathan Thompson should also earn some valuable time behind the plate. David Mitroff provides depth."

Hollinger comes off his best season in a Liberty uniform in 2008. Last year, the senior finished among the Big South leaders in runs scored (sixth – 60), hits (seventh – 82), RBIs (tied eighth – 47), doubles (tied fifth – 19) and total bases (tied seventh – 127). On the defensive side, he led the conference in runners caught stealing with 26 and fewest passed balls with four. In 62 games, Hollinger hit .319 with eight home runs and a .494 slugging percentage and led the Flames by hitting in 21-straight games. He earned his first selection to the Big South all-conference team at the end of the season.

Infielders

Three new players will man positions on the infield, while the lone returner will change positions this season.

"We are going to be very strong up the middle. Matt Williams had a tremendous fall both defensively and at the plate, and should be our everyday shortstop. At second, both P. J. Jimenez and Kizuku Scott were outstanding in the fall, with Jimenez the likely starter. Jimenez will also backup at shortstop. Poretz adds depth at both infield positions."

As for the corner positions, senior Cody Brown moves across the diamond from third to first base this season. In 2008, Brown hit .341 over 60 games and earned Big South All-Tournament honors. The senior finished fifth in the conference with 52 RBIs, tied for third with 19 doubles and led the Flames with nine home runs.

"We have a lot of options at first base with Cody Brown, Zane Bator, Doug Bream, Trey Wimmer and Steven Keener. Cody will likely be our everyday starter there," noted Toman about the position.
At the hot corner, two freshmen have competed for the job this fall in Tyler Bream and John Long.

"Tyler Bream made some tremendous defensive plays at third this fall and has a potent bat. Long will also compete for playing time at third base and in the outfield, and has some serious pop in his bat," assessed Toman.

Outfielders

Despite the loss of 2008 Big South All-Conference outfielder P.K. Keller, talent in the Liberty outfield will not be in short supply.

"Our outfield is much improved from a year ago. We have a lot more speed with Curran Redal and Casey Brown, who can both track balls down in the gaps. Tim Rotola can play all three outfield positions and will compete for playing time. Jeff Jefferson led us in hitting this fall and did a nice job in left field. Joseph Feeley, James Hipp, Justin Richardson and Doug Bream are all potent hitters, who will likely see sometime in the outfield as well."

With Redal and Casey Brown being junior college transfers, Jefferson is the lone holdover from last season. The sophomore hit .286 in 41 games in 2008, and provided the Flames with a potent bat at season's end, as he was named to the Big South All-Tournament squad. 

Schedule 

Games against 10 2008 NCAA Regional teams, including a contest at NCAA College World Series participant North Carolina, and a 27-game conference slate are just some of the highlights of the 2009 schedule.

"We made a concerted effort to improve our non-conference schedule this year," commented Toman. "We will play games against Ole Miss, North Carolina, Virginia, N.C. State, Duke, Virginia Tech, South Alabama, Mercer, Manhattan, Temple and Fordham, as well as many of the top in-state programs.

"The schedule will be a good challenge for us, and we should be a battle-tested group by the time we enter the conference tournament."

The Flames will open the 2009 campaign against nationally-ranked Ole Miss at the Coca-Cola Classic in Mobile, Ala., on Feb. 22. Liberty will also face host South Alabama twice and Mercer during the three-day tournament.

After midweek games at James Madison and 2008 College World Series participant North Carolina, the Flames open their home schedule with a doubleheader Saturday (Feb. 28) and a single game Sunday (Mar. 1) versus Manhattan at Worthington Stadium.

March features the beginning of a home-and home series with Duke (Mar. 10), a visit to N.C. State (Mar. 25), and the start of Liberty's 24-game Big South Conference slate. Toman's charges will host Charleston Southern in a three-game set to open league play (Mar. 13-15). The Flames will also visit conference foe High Point (Mar. 20-22) and host league newcomer Presbyterian (Mar. 27-29) during the month.

In April, the Flames will travel to VMI (Apr. 3-5) and conference newcomer Gardner-Webb (Apr.24-26), while hosting UNC Asheville (Apr. 10-11) and Winthrop (Apr. 17-19) in Big South play. Liberty will also host Virginia Tech (Apr. 22) to begin a home-and-home series and make its annual visit to Virginia (Apr. 28).

Highlighting the schedule in May will be the opener of a three-game series at Big South defending champion Coastal Carolina (May 1-3). The May 1 contest will be televised live on ESPNU. Liberty will also host Radford (May 14-16) on the last weekend of the regular season to conclude conference play.
The Flames will travel to Asheville, N.C. for the 2009 Big South Championship. McCormick Stadium will host this year's championship from May 19-23. The conference champion receives an automatic berth to a NCAA Regional, the following weekend (May 29-June 1).