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Uncommon Success in the
Commonwealth of Virginia
By Sean Ryan
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
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
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.
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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.”
(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
“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)