Feb. 4, 2009

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49ers Look to Lyerly

By Duncan Phillips



When Rob Lyerly secured his transfer release from Campbell University in the fall of 2007, one of his first calls was to Charlotte head coach Loren Hibbs. The coach on the other end of the line did not just represent a new opportunity; he was, in fact, an old friend.


Lyerly had played basketball with Hibbs’ son when they were both 5 years old, and the two families had become close friends over the years. Lyerly played shortstop at nearby Piedmont High School and attended baseball camps on campus as a youth.


Because he had not fully developed physically and his heart was set on playing shortstop in college, he ended up with the Fighting Camels despite getting looks from other colleges.


“We did recruit him, probably not as hard as we should have,” Hibbs said. “If we would have known how he was going to develop as a hitter, we probably would have recruited him a lot harder.”


Develop he did.


After batting just .178 his freshman year at Campbell, he exploded onto the scene at Charlotte last year and led the Atlantic 10 in slugging percentage (.705), RBI (76) and sacrifice flies (a school-record nine) on his way to being named first-team all-conference and the conference tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.


“There’s really no secret,” Lyerly said. “Baseball is a funny game. I guess I got hot at the right time and was fortunate to get pitches to hit and fortunate enough to find holes when I hit them.”


Sounds simple enough, but Hibbs also pointed to the balance of the 49ers’ lineup that paved the way for Lyerly’s success.


The murderers’ row for Charlotte included A-10 hit leader Shayne Moody, A-10 co-player of the year and home run leader Chris Taylor and 2008 pre-season All-American Brad McElroy, who finished his career at Charlotte with a school-record .392 batting average. All three players were selected in last year’s Major League Draft.


“To be able to plug Rob in the middle of that lineup, and provide him some protection as well, really helped,” said Hibbs. “Early in the season, people were so concerned about not pitching to McElroy that it gave more opportunities to Rob.”


And as if a new school, new teammates and a new coach were not enough to keep Lyerly on his toes, he also had to adjust to a new position. He had started the season as the designated hitter, but when first basemen Alex Burt went down with an injury, it was the versatile Lyerly who was called upon to take his place.


Through it all, he continued to turn heads, stay on top of his academics (he made the dean’s list in the spring) and do what he does best: crush baseballs.


In the 16 games he played at first base, he maintained a .478 batting average and slugged to the tune of .942.  His glove work wasn’t too shabby either, as he committed  just one error in his 162 chances. Lyerly finished the season with 26 doubles, 15 home runs and 155 total bases.


Other coaches, such as Duquesne’s Mike Wilson, began to take notice.


“He’s just one of those guys that you have to pitch to differently at every at-bat,” Wilson said. “I remember last year, we thought at first that we might be able to beat him away and he hit the ball away. Then we tried to go in on him, and he hit a home run on us.”


With his cover as an unknown commodity sufficiently and categorically blown, Hibbs expects Lyerly to see special treatment from opposing pitchers this season.


“Rob’s probably going to be in a very similar situation this year that McElroy was in last year, from the standpoint that people know who he is, and he’s probably not going to get nearly as many good pitches to hit as he has in the past,” Hibbs said. “And he’ll stay patient. He’ll do what he needs to do. And he’ll do the best he can to maximize every day.”


More proof that the power-hitting junior is no longer flying under the radar is the considerable amount of preseason buzz he has generated. He was selected to the Louisville Slugger Collegiate Baseball second-team All-America squad and named to Wallace Watch List.


In spite of the accolades that are pouring in, Lyerly has kept a level head, and both he and his coach agree that nothing will be proven until they step onto the field in late February.


“It feels good to be recognized for working hard, but it really doesn’t mean much because if I don’t go out and play well, it doesn’t help the team,” Lyerly said. “I just want to do whatever Coach Hibbs needs me to do to help win games.”


It is exactly that mentality that Hibbs hopes will translate into a third-straight conference title for the 49ers and perhaps another trip to the NCAA Tournament.


“It’s really simple for us,” Hibbs said. “The main goal, above everything else, is to play in June.”


For Charlotte to make it that far, a large part of the success will be Lyerly’s prowess at the plate. And if last season was any indication, there are more fireworks to come from the kid who used to play basketball with the coach’s son.


“I think sometimes you have to take a little bit different path to get to where you need to go,” Hibbs said. “I think we got it right in the end.”


(photos courtesy of Charlotte Media Relations Office)