The 2011 Big South Champion Liberty Lady Flames
2011 was a history-making season for the Liberty Lady Flames softball team, and the year was capped off with the program's second-ever Big South Championship title and subsequent appearance in the NCAA Regionals. Several team members achieved career-high numbers, and others climbed the all-time lists in Liberty softball history. Six Lady Flames earned all-conference accolades, and four Liberty players represented the team on the Big South Championship all-tournament team, including the tournament MVP. Head Coach Paul Wetmore picked up his 500th career win, and remains the winningest coach in Liberty history in any sport. In addition, the team was honored last week by the NCAA with Public Recognition Awards for its latest Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores. "2011 was an outstanding year for our program," commented Wetmore. "I am very proud of this team, on the field as well as off. They did a great job in the classroom, and were a great testimony everywhere we went. And most importantly, they will be forever remembered as Big South Champions." The squad ended the season with a 30-30 overall record, and an 11-7 mark in Big South play. It was the second straight year the program has picked up 30 wins, and the third time in the last five years. In a dramatic fashion, the No. 2 seed Lady Flames clawed out of the loser's bracket to win four straight contests and claim the 2011 Big South Softball Championship with a 3-1 victory over No. 1 seed Radford on May 14. That victory led to an appearance in the Knoxville Regional of the NCAA Softball Championship, where Liberty fell to No. 5 Tennessee and No. 19 Georgia Tech. "To have been placed in the toughest region in the postseason, and to have represented Liberty University and the Lord Jesus Christ as well as we did, will be a high water mark for me to always remember," stated Wetmore. "We gained the respect of players, coaches and fan alike." Junior infielder Kelly Strickland became the fourth player Liberty softball history to win Player of the Year honors, as she was named the Big South Co-Player of the Year along with Radford's Nichole Beall. Strickland became the first Lady Flame to win the award since Liberty assistant coach Jessica Moore took her second Player of the Year honor in 2007. Other conference honorees included seniors Ashley Bensinger and Keely McMillon, who were both named to the Big South all-conference first team, while fellow senior Amber DePasquale earned second team honors. It was the first career honor for all three players. Also named to the all-conference second team was junior first baseman Kaylee West, marking her first career all-conference honor as well. Sophomore Katrina Johnson, who was named the 2010 Co-Freshman of the Year, picked up second team all-conference honors. The molecular biology major was also named to this year's Big South All-Academic team. The 2011 Lady Flames returned six starting position players from last year's team, four of which were graduating seniors this year. Veterans returning were left fielder Meredith Crisante, center fielder DePasquale, right fielder Jenny Law, third baseman Bensinger, second baseman Strickland, first baseman West and catcher McMillon. Liberty also returned two pitchers, Johnson and 2010 Big South Pitcher of the Year Tiffani Smith. As in years past, the Lady Flames kicked off the season by traveling to various tournaments before opening up at home on March 24. The Lady Flames went 2-2 during their first tournament of the season, the College of Charleston Cougar Classic in Charleston, S.C. Liberty dropped its first contest to Iowa State, 3-0, before defeating Drexel, 9-2, and Marist, 4-0. The Lady Flames then rounded out the tournament with a narrow 6-4 loss to the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Next came a trip to Baltimore, Md., for an appearance in the UMBC Retriever Classic. The Lady Flames were a perfect 3-0 in that event, picking up wins over Siena, Mount St. Mary's and Princeton. Bensinger, Crisante and Smith were named to the event's all-tournament team. During the team's annual spring break trip, the Lady Flames traveled to Florida to compete in two tournaments and play two single games. First, Liberty went 2-3 at the Stetson Classic, defeating Iowa and Stetson and falling to Jackson State and Iowa twice during the weekend of March 12-13. During that week, the Lady Flames met UCF on their home field in Orlando, Fla., and dropped an extra-innings, 4-3 decision to the Knights. After moving across the state to Clearwater, Fla., Liberty faced No. 22 Texas A&M, which resulted in a 4-0 loss. The Lady Flames concluded their Florida trip with an appearance in the USF The Game Tournament in Clearwater, going 1-4 during the event. The highlight was a narrow 6-5 loss to No. 21 Texas Tech on the final day. The nine-inning contest marked the first time in 35 games that the Red Raiders had been pushed to extra innings. Liberty then returned to its home state to face Radford at Highlander Field on March 23, marking its 2011 conference-opener. With the score tied at 3-all in the top of the eighth inning, the game was suspended due to heavy rain and lightning. The contest would end up being resumed on April 28. Next came the long-awaited home opener at Liberty Softball Field on March 24. The Lady Flames split a doubleheader with Cornell that day, dropping the first game, 10-6, before storming back for a commanding 9-1 win in game two. Two days later, the Lady Flames welcomed the Highlanders of Radford for a doubleheader, which resulted in another split. Radford edged Liberty in the first game, 5-4, before the Lady Flames dominated game two, 11-2. As Big South play continued, Liberty took two out of three games from Winthrop in Rock Hill, S.C., on April 2 and 3. The final game was broadcast live on ESPNU, a first for the Liberty softball program. After a quick trip back home, it was on to Greensboro, N.C., for a non-conference doubleheader against UNC Greensboro on April 6. The Spartans had a better day than the Lady Flames, sweeping the tilt with 9-1 and 7-6 victories. Liberty was back on its home field April 8 and 9 for a Big South series against Charleston Southern. After the Lady Bucs took game on, 6-2, Liberty won the final two games, 9-1 and 4-1. Next came another road trip, this time to Harrisonburg, Va. Liberty faced James Madison in a doubleheader, which resulted in a split. In the second game win, West homered twice and drove in a career-high five runs in the 9-7 decision. From there, Liberty moved on to Boiling Springs, N.C., for a Big South series against the Runnin' Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb April 15 and 16. After sweeping the doubleheader on Saturday, 14-3 and 5-2, the Lady Flames found themselves down 8-1 going into the top of the seventh. A stellar comeback ensued, as the Lady Flames scored seven runs in the seventh and three more in the eighth to earn their first extra-inning win of the season with an 11-8 victory. "I will talk about the late-inning comeback against Gardner Webb for years," Wetmore said. "To score seven runs with two outs in the seventh inning to tie it, and come back to win was such an amazing feat." That victory sparked a streak, as Liberty won the next four games with two doubleheader sweeps over Hampton and Norfolk State at home. The second win over Norfolk State marked Wetmore's 500th career win, making him the third coach in Big South history to accomplish the feat. The Lady Flames hit a bit of a skid during the next stretch of games, being swept by Longwood and Virginia Tech in non-conference doubleheaders, and falling in the resumed game against Radford, 4-3. Back on their home field, the Lady Flames welcomed Presbyterian College for their final Big South series in Lynchburg. After winning game one, 4-2, the Blue Hose took control, taking the second game, 4-2, and winning the final game on Senior Day, 2-1. On May 3, Liberty hosted its final home doubleheader, a rescheduled tilt against Virginia. The Lady Flames dominated game one, cruising to an 8-0 victory, before dropping game two by a 3-2 score. To wrap up the 2011 regular season, Liberty headed south to Conway, S.C., for a three-game series against Coastal Carolina. After being edged by the Chanticleers in game one, 2-1, the Lady Flames responded with 4-1 and 5-0 wins in the final two games. At the 2011 Big South Softball Championships held at Terry Field in Rock Hill, S.C., the No. 2 seed Lady Flames were upset in the first round by home team Winthrop, the No. 7 seed, by a 5-1 score. Things looked dim for Liberty, as the team had to win three straight contests the next day to advance to the title game. But the Lady Flames were up for the challenge, casting revenge on the Eagles with a 3-0 win, before defeating No. 6 seed Gardner-Webb twice, 1-0 and 6-1. The highlight of the day, and perhaps the tournament, was Smith's second-career no-hitter against Winthrop. The senior only allowed two baserunners during the game, and both reached on walks. On Championship Saturday, the Lady Flames faced No. 1 seed Radford for the title. The game was winner-take-all due to a new bracket format used in the conference's postseason tournament. The Lady Flames controlled the game from the beginning, and took a 3-1 victory to win the program's second-ever Big South Championship, and first since 2002. Crisante, Johnson, Smith and Sammi Shivock were named to the Big South all-tournament team, while Smith earned tournament MVP honors. After their appearance at the Knoxville Regional in which the Lady Flames came close to upsetting No. 19 Georgia Tech, Bensinger and Strickland were both named to the 2011 Louisville Slugger/NFCA Division I All-Region second team for the Mid-Atlantic region. Smith ended her decorated Liberty career with the most strikeouts in Liberty history at 547. With Bensinger, DePasquale, McMillon and Smith graduating, Wetmore will look to his returning veterans to continue the program's success in 2012. "To God be the glory for what He allowed us to accomplish in His name," Wetmore said. "The future looks bright because of the ground work laid by this team."
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