Clockwise from top - Tyler Bream, Steven Evans, Doug Bream, Dane Beakler and Matt Williams
Every year since taking over the Liberty program in 2008, head coach Jim Toman has seen his program take impressive strides, culminating with a school-record 42-win season in 2010. In addition, Rivals Baseball has recently named Liberty as one of the top 10 rising programs in the country. In just three short years, over 10 school records have fallen, but Toman has a bigger goal in mind.
"Every year, our goal is the same," stated Toman. "We want to get into a NCAA Regional. Whether it is by winning the Big South Championship and getting the automatic bid or earning an at-large berth, the next step for our program is getting into a regional.
"From there, we also aim to make our presence known nationally and ultimately, we want to be the last team standing in Omaha!"
Having lost nine seniors from 2010's record-setting squad, this year's Flames team will feature a lot of new faces. Toman has added 15 new players to an already deep roster of returners, including All-Big South players Matt Williams and Tyler Bream, along with returning starter Michael Robertson.
"Our staff was very encouraged by the new players we brought in during the fall season," noted Toman. "We have several pitchers back, Steven Evans, Josh Richardson, Dane Beakler and J.J. McLeod, who had strong seasons last year, and of course, Matt Williams, Tyler Bream and Michael Robertson are probably locks to be in the line-up.
"But other than that, we have four or five openings in both our line-up and our rotation up for grabs. We will have to see how we do here early in the spring and try to sort it all out from there."
A Look at the Flames by Position
With the return of seven members from last season's mound staff and several strong additions, the Liberty pitching staff looks like it will be able to offset the losses of two-time All-Big South hurler Shawn Teufel and Dustin Umberger, who finished his career second on the Liberty career innings pitched list.
"While we have several pitchers back from last season, we have brought in six new arms," stated Toman. "I am pretty optimistic about their performances this fall, and we will have to figure out each one's role this spring."
Leading the returners is left-hander Steven Evans, who enters his final year in a Flames uniform off a career year in 2010. The left-hander, who appeared in 15 games, went 9-2 with a 3.01 ERA over 89 2/3 innings last season, striking out 85 and walking 25. Elected a team captain for 2010, Evans had career highs in wins, strikeouts and innings pitched, while posting the lowest ERA of his career. Besides Evans, the Flames return seniors Keegan Linza, Dane Beakler and J.J. McLeod and sophomores Josh Richardson and Tim Dudley to the staff.
Linza, who appeared in 14 games, started 12 times last season, posting an 8-0 record with a 5.29 ERA over 64 2/3 innings. The right-hander is the only other returning Flames hurler to start more than 10 games last season.
Beakler, McLeod, Richardson and Dudley each played significant roles in the Liberty bullpen in 2010. The bullpen staff recorded 16 saves last season. The season total was the second most in school history.
Beakler, who received another year of eligibility this past summer, returned from an injury in 2009 to lead the Flames with 26 appearances, all in relief. The right-hander posted a 4-2 record and two saves with a career-low 3.84 ERA over 61 innings. He struck out 56 and walked only 10 batters.
McLeod formed a solid one-two punch with Richardson, a sophomore, to finish games for the Flames in 2010. McLeod, a right-hander, was 1-1 with five saves and a 3.09 ERA over 23 1/3 innings his first season with Liberty. Meanwhile, Richardson, who also saw time at shortstop during his first collegiate baseball season, went 1-1 with six saves and a 4.20 ERA, striking out 32 and walking 14 over 35 2/3 innings.
Dudley, battling a sore shoulder, recorded win his only decision of the season in his debut year. The left-hander picked up the win in a 9-5 victory over High Point, allowing Liberty to advance to the 2010 Big South title game. In 23 2/3 innings, Dudley posted a 4.56 ERA.
Joining the Liberty pitching staff will be several new faces. Senior right-hander Mark Swanson returns to the mound after sitting out last year due to injury. Swanson posted a 4-0 record with 2.79 ERA over 38 2/3 innings in 2009.
Senior Bryan Cole also looks to return to the mound after sitting out last year with an injury. Transfers Andy Abrams, Garrett Baker, Patrick Eckelbarger, Blake Forslund, Jacob Kemmerer and John Niggli are expected to see plenty of mound time this season. All are all capable of providing solid contributions to the staff in 2011.
Freshmen Daniel Brown, Ryan Cordell, Chris King and Willi Martin will also compete for innings. Brown redshirted in 2010, while Cordell and King are two-way players, also playing elsewhere in the field. Martin showed in the fall that he will become a mainstay on the mound for the Flames.
The Liberty coaching staff came into the year, thinking it had plenty of depth at catcher. However, a knee injury to first baseman/catcher Trey Wimmer has changed that perception.
"With Wimmer's injury, we are a little thin behind the plate," commented Toman, a catcher himself during his collegiate days. "Transfer Casey Rasmus won the job in the fall and with the opening, we have moved Jeff Jefferson back behind the plate. He came a long way back there this fall and looks like he will see time there."
Rasmus, who led Liberty in the fall with a .425 batting average, was named the Panhandle Conference Defensive Player of the Year, while playing at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Fla., in 2010.
Jefferson was selected as a team captain this fall. The senior appeared in 34 games last season, playing in the outfield and first base, along with serving as the designated hitter.
For the second straight year, the Flames return both starters on the left side of the infield. If history is any indication, both shortstop and third base will be in good hands with the return of All-Big South performers, Matt Williams and Tyler Bream. Since arriving on campus in 2009, the two have been everyday starters for the Flames. Now both juniors, the two have become fixtures on the Liberty roster.
"It is good to have two guys like that back," noted Toman. "They are solid college players, play hard every day and are both draftable-type players."
Williams, who had a strong season with the bat in 2010, hitting .360, will once again be at shortstop. In 54 games, he ripped 22 doubles, tripled twice, hit four home runs and scored 52 runs.
Tyler Bream, the only returning Flame to play all 61 games last season, will once again be penciled in at third base. Last season, he hit .357 with 57 RBIs, 22 doubles and nine home runs. Named a team captain for 2011, he led the Big South with 96 hits, a Liberty single-season record.
Freshman Cal Sutphin will provide depth at shortstop and third base. Junior college transfer Dalton Sype could see action at any position on the infield.
At first base, the Flames have several options. Senior Doug Bream looks to see time at the position. However, he can also play the outfield and serve as the designated hitter, providing Toman with line-up flexibility. Last season, he hit .324 in 45 games.
Others expected to see time at first base are sophomore Justin Sizemore, senior Austin Taylor and the previously mentioned Sype. Junior college transfer Marcus Grimaldi provides depth.
At second base, newcomer Zack Haley had a strong fall and goes into the spring as the expected starter at the position. Taylor, Sype and freshman Chris King, also a pitcher, are also pushing for playing time.
Two of the three outfield positions will have new faces this season, with junior Michael Robertson the lone returner from 2010.
Robertson will once again be the Flames' right fielder. In his first season in a Liberty uniform, Robertson hit .337 with 43 RBIs and 39 runs scored in 54 games. He had 13 doubles, a team-leading four triples and hit four home runs.
After Robertson, the competition for playing time in the outfield is wide open, with at least five players who have a chance to see significant time.
Probably the most competitive spot in the Liberty line-up will be left field. Several players could see time in left field led by junior college transfer Ian Parmley and Doug Bream. Also excepted to see time in left field are junior college transfer Tony McClendon and Jeff Jefferson. Meanwhile in center field, Joshua Thompson has an edge on the completion.
"There is a lot of depth out there," stated Toman. "Who plays out there is going to depend on who is hot with the bat and who runs down balls the best."
Also returning to the outfield is junior Justin Richardson. Richardson has provided a left-handed bat mainly as the designated and pinch hitter for the Flames during his first two years with the program. Last season, Richardson hit.328 and 15 RBIs.
Freshman Ryan Cordell provides outfield depth.
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