Fan the Flames – Liberty Sports Through the Decades
Football, By Luke Randle
For all its history, Liberty football had been good — not incredible, not bad, but good.
For Liberty’s first nine years, the Flames were NAIA independents. This was followed by seven years at the DII level before the Flames soared to division I-AA (now FCS). The Flames’ stay in FCS lasted 29 years, longer than the administration had hoped.
From Liberty’s inception, school founder Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr. envisioned a top football program.
“It’s our plan to have our athletic program comparable to USC, to Notre Dame, to Alabama, to anybody in town,” Falwell Sr. said in 1975, back when the team had only existed for three seasons.
On Feb. 16, 2017, the NCAA granted Liberty a waiver to reclassify to FBS, and In their first FBS season in 2018, the Flames finished 6-6. There were positives and negatives: Liberty obliterated the favored Old Dominion 52-10 in its first game at the FBS level. But Liberty’s last away game of the season was not so pretty – the Flames got hammered 53-0 against Auburn.
And then head coach Turner Gill stepped down. Things looked a little directionless until Hugh Freeze was announced as Liberty’s new head coach.
Liberty hoped that Freeze would result in a strong, sustainable program.
Freeze’s first year looked to be set to go, but Freeze suffered a potentially life-threatening staph infection. Ultimately, Freeze had to coach from a hospital bed up in the tower of the stadium for the first game, in which No. 25 Syracuse defeated the Flames 24-0.
The Flames got back on track however, finishing 8-5 and defeating Georgia Southern in the Cure Bowl, Liberty’s first trophy as an FBS unit.
The COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered the 2020 season. Little to no fans being able to attend games changed the dynamic. Nevertheless, Liberty came out ready to go, and after starting 4-0, Liberty was given its first AP Poll top-25 ranking in program history. Situated at 25, Liberty traveled to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech.
The game was tight, but kicker Alex Barbir drilled a 51-yard kick in the closing seconds of the contest to give Liberty a dramatic victory.
Sitting at 9-1, Liberty was selected for its second bowl game in two seasons of eligibility. This time Liberty faced undefeated No. 9 Coastal Carolina.
In overtime, senior Elijah Clarke swatted Coastal’s kick to give Liberty the win. The Flames finished the season 10-1 and came in 17th on the AP Poll to close the year.
With fans back in the stands for the 2021 season, Liberty kept up its 2020 form, starting 7-2.
A three-game skid to close the regular season, however, put the Flames in a tricky spot.
The Flames found themselves in another bowl game, but fans wondered if the team could rebound?
Short answer, yes. The Flames demolished Eastern Michigan 56-20, and Liberty became the second team in NCAA history to win three bowl games in their first three years of FBS eligibility.
The Flames also secured their future. Liberty locked down Hugh Freeze to a mega-extension worth around $4 million a year.
The athletics administration was also able to secure a conference place, and Liberty will join a new-look Conference USA in 2023. Time will tell if it’s a short stop or a long stay in CUSA, but the Flames seem to be continuing their upward trajectory.
Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr.’s vision may yet come true.
Field Hockey, By Luke Randle
No team in Liberty sports history had ever reached the final championship at the NCAA DI level – until November 21, 2021.
A spirited 2-1 win over the Old Dominion in the last game of the regular season propelled Liberty to the No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament, also giving Liberty its first Big East regular season title.
In the Big East tournament championship, Liberty and UConn found themselves locked in a grudge match, with senior forward Jill Bolton’s goal lifting Liberty to the win and Liberty’s first conference championship since the Lady Flames were members of the now-defunct NorPac conference.
The Lady Flames’ contest came against No. 11 Saint Joseph’s. Charlotte Vaanhold and Martuzian’s goals gave Liberty the 2-0 win over the Hawks, propelling them to the quarterfinals.
While Liberty led at halftime, two goals from No. 1 seed Rutgers in the third quarter left the Flames trailing. With minutes to go, Bolton broke through, equalizing off the penalty corner.
Overtime went into penalty strokes, and after a heart stopping affair, Vaanhold’s score gave the Flames the historic win. It was the first time any Liberty team had taken down a No. 1 seed at the NCAA DI level and the first time any Liberty team found itself in the final four.
In the semifinals, facing Maryland, Liberty led most of the game before the Terrapins tied it up minutes before the end of regulation. A green card in overtime left the Lady Flames down a player, but the defense held on, and in the 79th minute Jill Bolton’s pass to Vaanhold resulted in the game-winner.
Ultimately, the Lady Flames lost 2-0 to Northwestern in the National Championship. This season proved to the team, and to all of Liberty, that the Flames had heart. Head coach Nikki Parsley-Blocker reflected on what people should take away from the season.
“I know we didn’t win the national championship, but to even make it here is incredible,” Parsley-Blocker said. “I just am going to always remember it as the first time we were here with a really special group of student athletes.”
Hockey By Cameron Satterthwaite II
From playing at an ice rink an hour’s drive away from Liberty University to holding home games on campus in a packed-out arena, the Liberty hockey program has grown to great heights.
Hockey has become one of the standout sports at Liberty. There are five Liberty hockey teams, and they all play in the same arena, the LaHaye Ice Center.
Liberty’s first hockey team was created by a group of college students who wanted to put together an official men’s hockey team for the school. Most of the students who helped had skating experience and wanted to represent their school by playing the sport they loved.
In 1984, the first Liberty team formed, but they only played pickup games with other colleges. A year later, Liberty found its first hockey head coach, current Rawlings School of Divinity professor Dr. Gary Habermas. Habermas was crucial for the hockey team’s early success.
With Habermas, the hockey team began playing official games against other colleges, and the team got off to a roaring start with 18 wins and only two losses in its inaugural season (1985/86), something Habermas attributed to the players’ fierce desire to play hockey.
Since there was no ice rink on Liberty’s campus, the team traveled to Roanoke, Virginia, to practice and played its home games at multiple ice rinks throughout the city. Much of this was done late at night when the rinks were available. Students were given special permission to be out past curfew to attend the games. Habermas coached the team for nine years and led the Flames to three national tournaments.
The hockey team grew in popularity and in 2005, Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. announced that a new ice center would be built on campus. Donations, primarily from Drs. Tim and Beverly LaHaye, gave Liberty the funds to complete the LaHaye Ice Center on the north side of campus.
Head Coach Kirk Handy, who has coached the team since 2002, was enthusiastic when he found out Liberty would have an on-campus arena.
“We received the call that we (were) going to build an ice rink on campus in 2005, and for us, I think that was the moment where I really felt like there is something really special that’s going on here with our program,” Handy said.
When the arena opened, Handy transitioned the team from ACHA Division II to DI for the 06-07 season. Since then, the arena has undergone one major renovation in 2014 to increase seating capacity and office space. The LaHaye Ice Center currently serves as a headquarters for several club sports with educational and medical amenities.
Liberty’s hockey programs have gained national recognition for many years. Today, Liberty has three divisions for men’s hockey and two for women’s hockey. The men’s DI team has captured 13 conference championship titles (though they became an independent program in the summer of 2021), and the women’s DI hockey team has won three national championships in a row (not including the 2020 playoffs which were canceled due to COVID-19).
LaHaye Ice Center continues to host packed out games, indicating that hockey will be a staple at Liberty for a long, long time.