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Liberty Journal

Pushing forward: Athletics teams seeking to surpass last year's successes

Fall 2013 : By Ted Allen

In 2012-13, Liberty University became only the fifth NCAA Division I school in the Bowl Championship Series era, which began in 1998, to capture conference championships in football, men’s basketball, and baseball in the same year. Add women’s basketball to that sweep of Big South Conference (BSC) trophies — as the Lady Flames did by winning 14 of their last 15 games — and Liberty delivered a grand slam that no other school was able to accomplish last year, and a feat that may be unprecedented in the history of NCAA Division I programs.

Altogether, this past school year Liberty claimed 10 BSC crowns, tying Stanford’s total in the Pacific-12 and trailing only Princeton (which won 11 in the Ivy League), for most in America. Besides achieving success in the four dominant sports, the Flames also excelled in winning conference titles in men’s and women’s cross country, men’s indoor track & field, men’s and women’s outdoor track & field, and women’s volleyball, which donned its fourth conference crown in the past six seasons.

Liberty also garnered the George F. “Buddy” Sasser Cup, designating it as the Big South’s top athletics program, for the sixth year in a row and 11th time in the past 16 years. The honor gives Liberty more awards than any other athletics department in conference history, better than longtime rival Coastal Carolina’s nine Sasser Cups.

Baseball

Liberty Baseball player throws a pitch.
NCAA TOURNAMENT REGIONAL FINALISTS: In the program’s first NCAA Regional, Liberty Baseball faced Clemson and South Carolina, beating the Tigers twice.

Another highlight of the year included christening the new Liberty Baseball Stadium with a 4-1 victory over Penn State on Feb. 23, witnessed by 2,565 fans. Home-field advantage helped the fifth-seeded Flames win their first BSC championship since 2000 with a 2-1 triumph over top-seeded Campbell on May 25. In that game, tournament MVP Ashton Perritt delivered the game-winning RBI in the top of the ninth before retiring the Camels in the bottom of the inning for his ninth save.

That was Liberty’s fourth one-run win in the tournament and secured the Flames an automatic bid to the NCAA Regional in Columbia, S.C., hosted by South Carolina, head coach Jim Toman’s former team. By beating Clemson twice — the first behind a six-RBI production from catcher Trey Wimmer and complete-game pitching performance by Josh Richardson — the Flames advanced to their first regional final in program history before being eliminated by the host Gamecocks, 6-4.

Following its fifth 35-win campaign in Toman’s six seasons at the helm, Liberty (36-29) ended the year ranked No. 26 in the final Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll, also receiving votes in the final National Collegiate Baseball Writers (NCBWA) and USA Today Coaches polls.

Basketball

Flames men's and women's basketball competes.
BiG SOUTH CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS: (Left) Lady Flames basketball squared off with Purdue on the national stage in their 15th NCAA Tournament appearance. (Right) En route to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004, the Flames men’s basketball team stunned the competition in the Big South Conference Championship, upending higher seeds in each of its matchups.

Perhaps the most surprising NCAA Tournament appearance of the year was made by the Flames’ men’s basketball team, which became only the second team in NCAA history to make the field with 20 losses. The 15-20 Flames, seeded fifth in the North Division, advanced to the Big Dance on the heels of their first BSC championship in nine seasons and third overall. They upset Charleston Southern, the No. 1 seed in the South, 87-76, in the final for their fourth win in six days after beating No. 4 South seed Coastal Carolina, No. 1 North seed High Point, and No. 2 South seed Gardner-Webb.

On March 19 in Dayton, Ohio, Liberty rallied from behind and barely came up short in its NCAA Tournament opener against North Carolina A&T, 73-72, as John Caleb Sanders’ last-second, off-balance, fast-break layup in traffic glanced off the backboard and fell just wide of the rim.

Junior guard Davon Marshall’s 22 points tied him with David Dees for most points scored by a Liberty player in an NCAA Tournament game and he also edged Seth Curry for the most three-pointers in a season with 107. Sanders, meanwhile, became the 23rd Liberty player to reach the 1,000-point milestone, joining older brother Jesse Sanders, the Flames’ all-time assist leader who played professionally this past year in Italy.

Five days later in Louisville, Ky., Devon Brown became only the second player in Liberty women’s basketball history to eclipse the 2,000-point plateau, scoring a team-high 21 points in a 77-43 loss to Purdue in the NCAA Tournament opener for the 13th-seeded Lady Flames (27-7).

It came as little surprise for Liberty to make it to college basketball’s grandest stage after continuing its dominance in the Big South, winning its 15th conference tournament title in the past 17 seasons with a 54-45 victory over BSC newcomer Longwood.

The team graduated five seniors, including Brown, who was the Virginia Sports Information Directors’ State Player of the Year. They were honored at an annual awards banquet, where President Jerry Falwell, Jr. noted that, historically, the Lady Flames have been “the most successful athletics team at Liberty.”

Women's Volleyball

Similarly, the women’s volleyball team was no stranger to the NCAA Tournament, claiming its seventh BSC Tournament championship after head coach Shane Pinder guided the Lady Flames to their sixth consecutive BSC regular-season title since taking the coaching reins in 2004.

After being swept by four-time defending NCAA champion Penn State in the 2011 opener, Liberty again drew the No. 8 seed in the first round of the tournament, traveling to Minnesota. The Lady Flames played their longest game since the 25-point rally scoring format was introduced in 2008, falling 34-32 in the third and final game of their season-ending setback to the Golden Gophers.

Football

Flames Football during its home opener.Under the direction of first-year Head Coach Turner Gill, Flames Football earned at least a share of the Big South regular-season title for the fifth time in the past six seasons. Freshman quarterback Josh Woodrum was VaSID’s Offensive Rookie of the Year and senior wide receiver Pat Kelly came one catch short of Pat Nelson’s single-season record with 80. Though Liberty earned a share of the regular season crown, the conference’s lone bid to the NCAA Football Conference Championship playoffs went to Coastal Carolina due to Big South tie-breaker rules.

As Liberty embarks on its 2013-14 sports seasons, and looks toward a potential move to a conference that competes in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), excitement is in the air on Liberty Mountain. The football program returns Woodrum and fellow all-BSC preseason offensive pick Hunter Steward, a senior offensive lineman; five all-BSC preseason defensive players, including senior defensive back and kickoff returner Kevin Fogg; and three all-BSC preseason selections on special teams. It also added former University of Virginia running back Clifton Richardson, a transfer with two seasons of eligibility remaining.

The Flames officially kicked off Liberty’s fall athletics season at Kent State on Aug. 29 before beating Monmouth 45-15 in their Sept. 7 home opener at Williams Stadium, which was recently named one of the best FCS facilities in the nation and the best in the BSC by the Sports Network.

Liberty will play a record seven of 12 games at home this fall, including Coastal Carolina on Oct. 19, Homecoming Weekend. (Read more about Homecoming activities.)

Club Sports

Flames Lacrosse takes the field.
MEN’S COLLEGIATE LACROSSE ASSOCIATION DII SEMIFINALISTS: Liberty’s men’s lacrosse team captured its first Southeast Lacrosse Conference tournament title, placing them in the MCLA Division II national tournament where they advanced to the semifinals.

Meanwhile, Liberty’s Club Sports program, which expanded to 32 sports this summer with the addition of women’s equestrian, is also coming off an exceptional year and seeking to continue its unprecedented growth in 2013-14.

The Flames had 10 men’s and six women’s teams represented at national competitions in 2012-13, with the men’s archery compound team winning a national championship at the Oct. 21-23 U.S. Collegiate Archery Association 3-D National Championships in Columbia, Mo.

Liberty’s American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I women’s team finished as national runner-up to Minnesota, the previous season’s runner-up, ending the year with a 29-3 record after being ranked No. 1 in the nation for more than two months.

The Flames men’s lacrosse team captured its first Southeast Lacrosse Conference tournament title and Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association Division II national tournament berth in late April. The Flames advanced to the MCLA DII semifinals in mid-May before falling to St. Thomas (Minn.), winner of four of the past five championships, 10-9 in overtime.

Individually, senior 235-pound wrestler Andrew Wilson claimed a national championship and led Liberty to a repeat of its third-place team showing at the National Collegiate Wrestling Association tournament in Allen, Texas. Jill Wipperman’s sixth-place all-around performance paced the Lady Flames to a 13th-place finish at the National Association of Intercollegiate Gymnastics Clubs national meet in Minneapolis. Liberty snowboarder Eden Jones finished fourth and Tim Steltzer won the Big Air event at the United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association National Championships in Idaho.

For the first time last October, the men’s and women’s triathlon team was represented on the international stage when team members Joseph Anderson and Parker Spencer, along with coach Beth Frackleton, competed in the World Age Group Triathlon Championships held in New Zealand. On Sept. 21, Liberty hosted its first USA Triathlon-sanctioned event on campus.

Athletic Facilities

Liberty’s Club Sports and NCAA programs are poised to expand as many of the facilities are set to receive upgrades and new ones are planned.

Club Sports recently opened a refurbished athletic training and strength and conditioning facility and hired a new strength coach and graduate assistant athletic trainer to serve its 500-plus athletes. The building is located behind the LaHaye Ice Center, which also underwent significant offseason renovations in preparation for the season openers of Liberty’s five men’s and women’s hockey teams and its budding figure skating and synchronized skating programs.

The new Olympic Sports Complex, currently under construction below the LU Monogram on Liberty Mountain, should help teams achieve even more success in the future. That multipurpose facility will include an Olympic-sized pool and an indoor track, and will also house the wrestling and men’s and women’s gymnastics teams and support other Olympic sports.