Senior Preston Dembowiak saved his best collegiate season for last, helping the Flames capture a Big South title and pushed Liberty to its best season in program history.
Flames head football coach Danny Rocco talks quite often about his goal of establishing a program of national prominence. After a fourth-straight Big South title and ending the last three years ranked inside the Top 25, Liberty's gridiron giants have made Liberty a regular name when people around the country talk about the elite FCS programs. Following a season to remember around some of the more notable golf courses in the country, Liberty's golf program can add its name to Rocco's list of Liberty Athletics programs with national credibility. The national recognition for the Flames was not just for winning its first-ever Big South Championship and advancing to the NCAA Arizona Regional. It was rather for a year-long campaign stating to the collegiate golf world that Liberty was prepared to compete and succeed at the highest level of the game. The run culminated with a No. 5 seeding at the NCAA Arizona Regional, Liberty's third NCAA Regional team berth since 2003. Despite coming into the 54-hole event being ranked No. 27 in the country by Golfweek, most in the country were still questioning whether Liberty belonged in the same circle of names as the event's top seeds, Texas A&M, San Diego State, Texas Tech and California. On May 19, Liberty teed off the No. 10 hole at the Tucson National Golf Resort, a dogleg left par-5, to little fanfare. The well-known named programs being sent off the opening par-4, No. 1 hole just 50 yards away. However, by the time Liberty's five sank their last putts on the tricky par-4, No. 9 hole, one that played to the most elevated green on the former PGA Tour stop, onlookers at the par-71 course and those watching from around the world learned that the Flames were well deserving of its national ranking and tournament position. Liberty carded a four-under par 280, its seventh-best 18-hole total of the season, which placed the Flames in third place in the 14-team field. Following the opening round, Liberty found its name on the team leaderboard ahead of five programs that had previously won NCAA national championships, including two since 2004 (Texas A&M in 2009 and California in 2004). And even though Liberty could not sustain the same opening-round push during the final 36 holes of competition, Liberty made a statement with its strong play. The Flames let the collegiate golfing community know they were prepared to make sure this year's run was not a one-year blitz, but rather the start of the program's desired national position. A season that has been years in the making started with the first eye-opening result on Liberty's 2010-11 schedule. Liberty began the year at the Golfweek Conference Challenge in Burlington, Iowa, a 15-team field that features 12 programs who finished the previous season ranked inside the Top 75 programs in the country. The Flames were just outside the mark, finished the 2009-10 season ranked No. 88. However, the team's ranking quickly climbed following a showing for the record books. Liberty finished the event in third place with a nine-under par 855, including a blistering 17-under par 271 during the closing round to leapfrog five teams on the final day leaderboard. Three of Liberty's starting five in the field finished with sub-70 rounds, including Preston Dembowiak, who carded a six-under par 66. The closing round allowed the senior to finish tied for ninth place and seemed to awake the missing cog needed in Liberty's drive to becoming a program of national prominence. Liberty, who returned NCAA Regional individual participants Robert Karlsson and Max McKay from the previous season's Flames rosters, seemed to be missing that final consistent team contributor at each tournament. By the conclusion of the fall, the Flames national team rankings had risen to No. 41 according to both Golfweek and Golfstat. Liberty finished third or better in three out of four events, including a tie for first place at the Rees Jones Intercollegiate. Additionally, the influx of several freshmen has caught the attention of the national golfing world, as Golfstat had Liberty's freshmen class ranked No. 13 nationally based upon the impact each program's freshmen class had upon its program. Following a two-month break during the months of December and January to regroup and refocus its efforts, the Flames returned to one of the most renowned courses in the United State, the Stadium Course at the TPS-Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Liberty would finish the 15-team field event in third place, thanks strongly to the play of Karlsson. The junior concluded the 54-hole event in second place with a three-under par 213, finishing only behind Florida's Bank Vongvanij, the nation's top ranked golfer in the country at the time of the event. Karlsson was just two shots back of Vongvanij, who finished first with a five-under par 211. Liberty finished ahead of three Top 50 programs at the Jacksonville-hosted event, including No. 21 Wake Forest, No. 40 Clemson and No. 43 East Carolina, a theme that would resonate throughout the rest of the 2010-11 season story. By season's end, Liberty entered the Big South Golf Championship with a combined 119-21-2 record and victories over other Top 50 programs like N.C. State, North Texas and Virginia. Regardless of the outcome at the league's annual championship event at The Patriot Golf Club in Ninety Six, S.C., Liberty knew that its resume was worthy of NCAA Regional consideration. Despite the nearly punched ticket to the Regionals, the Flames wanted to include a program first on its 2010-11 season accomplishment list – a Big South team championship. Before competition began on the Davis Love, III, designed golf course nested outside the greater Columbia area, Liberty received some major individual attention for its already notable team season. The Flames swept the Big South Conference major awards with Jeff Thomas and Karlsson repeating as Big South Coach and Golfer of the Year, respectively, while freshman Chase Marinell took home Big South Freshman of the Year honors. Additionally, Dembowiak was named to the Big South all-conference team and was selected the league's Scholar-Athlete of the Year. With hardwood in hand, the Flames controlled the pace of play at the par-72 course all three days, bolstered by an 11-under par 277 during the second round. By the end of the event, Liberty won it's first-ever league title with an eight-under par 856, finishing 31 shots clear of second-place Gardner-Webb for the second largest margin of victory in Big South Men's Golf Championship history. The Flames brought to an end the stranglehold Coastal Carolina had on the championship, as the Chanticleers had won the previous seven Big South titles and 12 out of the last 14 conference championships. Liberty's team title, which earned the Flames the automatic berth in the NCAA Regionals, was paced by the Flames securing spots No. 1, 2 and 3 on the leaderboard. Dembowiak led the charge, as the senior capped off his best year carrying a Liberty Flames golf bag with his first collegiate win. The senior posted a seven-under par 209, giving Liberty Big South medalist honors for the second year in a row. McKay followed behind his senior's lead for second place with a three-under par 213 and Karlsson took third with a two-under par 214. A month following Liberty's dominating win at The Patriot Golf Club, the Flames knew they would be heading to one of six NCAA Regional sites. Liberty thought it would be sent to closer locations like Blacksburg, Va., or Ocala, Fla., but Liberty was sent west to Tucson, Ariz., to participate in the NCAA Arizona Regional. Liberty's scores during the second and third round of action at the Tucson National Golf Resort rose with the temperatures in the Arizona sun, slowly taking away the Flames ultimate goal of a trip to Stillwater, Okla., for the NCAA National Championship. Despite a 10th place finish, all was not a loss with Liberty's youngest golfers, sophomore Andrew Colvin and freshman Marinell, finished tied for 25th with a one-over par 214. The pair gives Liberty four active golfers with career Top 25 finishes at NCAA Regional events, joining McKay (T16) and Karlsson (T24), who cracked the Top 25 standings at the 2009 NCAA Yale Regional in New Haven, Conn. The Flames will certainly feel the loss of its senior class heading into the future. Especially Dembowiak, who finished this season with a 72.8 stroke average, one that was more than two strokes per round less than his career average coming into his final campaign (75.3). However, the future certainly looks bright following a season where Liberty finished in the top three in 12 team events in the strongest schedule in program history. With two-time Big South Golfer of the Year Karlsson, the last three Big South Freshman of the Year (Karlsson, McKay and Marinell) and most of its core golfers returning, the future certainly looks bright for the Liberty golf program. Liberty's final team ranking will not be finalized until one of 30 teams leaves the Karsten Creek Course on June 5 carrying an NCAA trophy. But with the Flames entering the week of the national championship event ranked No. 32 by Golfweek and No. 34 by Golfstat, Liberty is almost assured of its first Top 40 final team ranking in program history. And, although Liberty's final ranking is not set in stone for 2010-11, the one thing that seems concrete is Liberty's newly established position in the collegiate golf world. The steady improvement of the program during the last several years has proven the Flames are poised to be Liberty's next program of national prominence.
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