With the conclusion of the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field National Championships, it officially ended the 2018-19 athletic year for Liberty University. The season had its ups and downs for each athletic program, but, on the whole, it was the most successful season in Liberty history and included multiple NCAA Tournament appearances and victories.
“Our overall aspiration is we want to compete for conference championships, and, if you do that, that puts you in a position to compete in the national tournaments,” Liberty Athletic Director Ian McCaw said. “We’re fortunate a number of sports were able to do that this year. Our coaches are focusing more and more nationally on developing top 25 programs and succeeding on the national scale. I was really encouraged by the comprehensive success we had this year across the board. Our teams are thriving, and that’s a credit to the coaches, staffs, and student-athletes.”
It began with the football team playing its first ever full FBS slate. Despite being ineligible for a bowl game, the Flames were able to win 6 games, including 4 against FBS competition. It wasn’t long ago that we were ecstatic to have just one FBS win in a season, much less four. The win over Troy could be argued as the best win in school history as the Trojans won 10 games on the season, including the Dollar General Bowl. The first win of the season, against Old Dominion in a blowout, was quite the statement to the rest of the FBS world.
Off the field, Liberty was able to secure a secondary bowl agreement with the Cure Bowl for 2019 and 20, something other Independents have struggled to do. The Flames also released the 2022 football schedule recently which includes home dates against BYU and Virginia Tech.
That success carried over to the other big sport on campus, men’s basketball, who had its best season in school history. Under Coach McKay’s guidance, the Flames won a school record 29 games, won a share of the regular season ASUN championship, won the ASUN Tournament, and beat Mississippi State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Baseball came within inches of a regular season ASUN title, falling to FGCU on the final day of the regular season. The Flames would rebound the following week in DeLand, Florida to win the ASUN Tournament Championship and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament where Liberty was awarded a 3-seed in the Chapel Hill Region. The Flames defeated 2-seed Tennessee in the opening round before falling in consecutive games to North Carolina and the Volunteers. The program tied the school record for most wins in a season.
The Liberty golf team had its best regular season in school history, climbing all the way to a national ranking of 22. The Flames finished 2nd in the ASUN and received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Competing as the 4-seed in the Athens Regional, Liberty would clinch the 5th spot in the regional, advancing to the NCAA Nationals for the 2nd time in school history. At nationals, Liberty concluded the season tied for 20th place. Gabe Lench, the lone senior in the Flames’ starting lineup this year, became the first golfer in program history to advance to the final round of stroke play and posted the best individual finish of a Flames’ golfer in program history at the national championship as he tied for 24th place.
Under Brant Tolsma, the Liberty men’s and women’s track & field and cross country programs have been the class of the athletic department, consistently competing for conference championships for the past 25 years. It was no different in the program’s first season in the ASUN, and this past spring the track & field program had perhaps its most successful season to date, sending a program record 9 athletes to the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Austin, Texas. In 2007 and 2018, the Flames sent 5 qualifiers to the national championships. Liberty ended the meet with a program-record four All-Americans, including first-team honorees Azaria Kirwa (men’s 10K) and Alejandro Perlaza Zapata (men’s 400) and second-team performers Felix Kandie (men’s steeplechase) and Denzel Pratt (men’s javelin).
While the softball team was unable to make it back to the program’s 2nd straight NCAA Tournament, they advanced to a 3rd straight postseason appearance as the Flames were selected to compete in the NISC for the 2nd time in the past 3 seasons.
The men’s and women’s tennis programs continued their rise, each coming eerily close to winning an ASUN championship and having arguably the best season in their individual program history. The men’s Nicaise Muamba was the ASUN Men’s Tennis Player of the Year and became the 2nd Liberty player to earn entry into the NCAA Men’s Tennis Championship.
In the athletic department’s first season competing in the ASUN, Liberty won championships in men’s basketball, baseball, men’s and women’s indoor track & field, men’s and women’s outdoor track & field, and women’s tennis (regular season).
The Flames had 2nd place ASUN finishes in Men’s Cross Country, Women’s Cross Country, men’s tennis, softball, women’s lacrosse, and golf. The women’s basketball team reached the ASUN Tournament Championship game before losing to FGCU.
That’s 14 of the 17 sports that compete in the ASUN either won a championship or finished as runner-ups. There are 3 sports Liberty fields that don’t have a home in the ASUN – football and women’s field hockey and swimming & diving. Being Independent, football can’t win a conference championship, field hockey finished 2nd in the Big East, and swimming won the CCSA conference championship. In total, 16 of Liberty’s 20 NCAA Division I teams finished either first or second in its respective conference, and one that didn’t (football) was unable to accomplish the feat.
Unsurprisingly, after those stats, Liberty won the ASUN Bill Bibb Trophy, which is awarded to the ASUN institution with the top overall athletic program. The Flames also won the Jesse Fletcher Trophy for Men’s All Sports and the Sherman Day Trophy for Women’s All Sports, edging 2nd place Florida Gulf Coast in all 3 awards. This marks the third time in ASUN history that a member institution swept all three honors.
The Flames also finished inside the top 100 in the final standings for the 2018-19 Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup, finishing #93. The Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup is awarded annually to the nation’s best overall collegiate athletics program. The 93rd ranking for the Flames marked the third time in school history Liberty has finished inside the top 100 in the final standing. Liberty ranked No. 82 in the listing in 2001-02 and No. 96 following the 2011-12 athletics campaign.
“Liberty’s viewed nationally as a program that’s on the rise and has a lot of momentum,” McCaw stated. “A year ago many were wondering how our transition to FBS and the ASUN was going to work, and we’ve been successful. I believe we will continue to be successful and thrive in the years to come. I believe our best days are ahead of us, but certainly this was a year where we took a big step.”