Feb. 2, 2012

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Uncommon Success in the Commonwealth of Virginia

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball


Over the past seven years, there are two schools in Virginia that have averaged better than 35 wins a season.


Virginia, with two trips to the College World Series and five seasons of 45 or more wins during that time, is an obvious choice.


The other? It may surprise most that it’s Liberty, which has averaged 36.5 wins, including a school-record 42 in 2010, when the Flames narrowly missed at at-large berth to the NCAA tourney. It also may be a surprise that Liberty had seven players selected in last year’s Major League Draft, a Big South record.


“We’ve won a lot of games, but – and it’s a big but – the but is Coastal,” said Flames coach Jim Toman (left), who’s entering his fifth season after spending 18 years as an assistant to Ray Tanner at NC State and South Carolina.


The Flames, 18-9 in the Big South and 35-24 overall in 2011, beat Big South perennial power Coastal Carolina twice (in five tries) in 2008 but haven’t beaten the Chanticleers since, going 0 for 12. But last season, Liberty made big strides.


“Last year, three out of the four games vs. them, we lost by one run,” senior outfielder Michael Robertson said. “I’m thinking this year, we’ll get over the hump.”


That’s all part of making Liberty more of a household name.


The university, founded by Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1971 and is the largest Christian university in the world, is in the midst of a national campaign to promote itself to various markets across the country.


Despite all the success on the baseball diamond, it’s not uncommon that recruits need to be educated about the school and its mission.


Senior pitcher John Niggli (right), who previously played at College of the Sequoias (Calif.), had never heard of Liberty until getting a call from assistant Jason Murray, the former head coach at Charleston Southern.


“I had never grown up in the church,” said Niggli, who was 4-4 with a 3.69 ERA last year. “I was one of the few guys who came to Liberty with no church background. That was one of the things that brought me here. I was actually looking forward to learning about [religion]. A lot of people get turned off by that, and a lot of people want to find out more.”


Robertson, who came to Liberty from Bellevue (Wash.) College, also didn’t know much about the school.


“I remember getting a letter from them,” Robertson said. “I had no idea what Liberty was, where Liberty was. I had never heard of it.”


It didn’t take long for Robertson to like what he saw.


“I thought it was a strong Christian atmosphere and I fell in love with the school the first day on campus,” said Robertson, who hit .316 with two homers, 35 RBI and 18 stolen bases in 2011. “I wanted to play at a high-caliber level of baseball, but it was a cherry on top that I could play at a Christian school.”


For his part, Toman had assisted Tanner at NC State for seven years and followed him to South Carolina, where he spent another 11 years.


“I could have stayed there another 10 years because he was such a good guy to work for,” Toman said. “It was time to move on and get a [head] job. I didn’t have any idea where it would be.”


It just so happened that Liberty Athletic Director Jeff Barber arrived in Lynchburg, Va., in 2006 after spending 11 years in the athletic department at South Carolina. Although he said he wasn’t actively looking for a job because he had one of the top assistant jobs in the country, Toman knew and trusted Barber and loved what he heard from Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr.


“Who would have thought that I’d leave the SEC and go to a mid-major?” said Toman, who previously interviewed at Coastal Carolina when Gary Gilmore was hired and at Maryland when Terry Rupp got the job. “I didn’t think I would do it.”


Toman did, and he’s continued the work of previous coach Matt Royer and others in putting the Flames on the national baseball map.


The program has produced four major leaguers, led by the guy who made one of them most famous slides in baseball history, Sid Bream. Lee Guetterman, Randy Tomlin and Doug Brady also played at Liberty. Bream’s son Tyler and Shawn Teufel, the son of former major leaguer Tim Teufel, have played for the Flames in recent years. Teufel and Keegan Linza, a 38th round pick last year, finished the 2011 season in Triple-A ball.


Toman is working under unique circumstances.


Religion is an integral part of the Liberty experience. The school attracts students from all 50 states and more than 70 countries (the baseball team has players from 13 states).


“You have to recruit a certain type of kid, there’s no doubt about that,” Toman said. “We need to recruit a kid who’s interested in a Christian environment. That’s a plus and a minus. Not all the kids when you call them are going to be open to that kind of environment.”


Robertson (left) said, “I’d say it weeds out a few players, but those players who are becoming distracted by all the off-the-field stuff, we wouldn’t want them here anyways…you don’t have to be a Christian to go to school here, just give it a chance.”


Another plus for Liberty is a new $8 million-$10 million stadium with 2,500 seatbacks that is expected to open in time for the 2013 season.


“I think with the new stadium, we can move up another notch,” Toman said. “We keep finishing second to Coastal. We think when we get the new stadium that we’ll be able to recruit a better player.”


Until then, the Flames will try to take another step forward – this year’s squad has 16 newcomers to join 16 returners.


“Liberty is definitely an up and coming school,” Niggli said. “One of these years, we’re going to make the Regional and go deep. It’s just right there, and I think everyone knows that. It’s nothing but a good atmosphere here.”


(photos courtesy of Liberty Media Relations Office)