Year in Review: Five Stories as Liberty Continues ‘Golden Age’ of Track and Field | LU Sports

Sporting director Ian McCaw said in the summer of 2019 he felt “we are just entering the golden age of Liberty athletics. I think 25 years from now people will see that time as a time when we really took the leap and did some special things. “

A global pandemic could certainly have slowed the progress made since McCaw was hired in November 2016. The football schedule has had an unforgettable season in 2020, but this team was the only one entering the field this fall season. That meant 2021 featured more games than many could count, and five programs played full campaigns in the spring and fall.

Liberty’s sports programs have thrived during a busy calendar year. Ten teams won conference championships and eight qualified for the NCAA tournament.

The field hockey program gained notoriety with its run for the national championship game, while the soccer team continued its 10-game 2020 season with eight more wins and a third straight triumph in the bowl.

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There have been so many stories told in the past 12 months. Here are the five important stories of the calendar year which tell that freedom continues on its way into the “golden age”. This concludes our coverage of The News & Advance’s Best Sports Stories which started Monday with a Ben Cates list and Tuesday with Emily Brown’s five favorite stories.

1. Men’s Liberty Basketball Returns to NCAA Tournament for Third Season in a Row

Liberty University forward Micaiah Abii hangs on to the basket after shooting the ball after play is over during a game against Lancaster Bible College at Liberty Arena on February 5.

Kendall Warner photos, The News & Advance

The 2020 men’s basketball team had all the makings for a mid-major program to make a deep run of the NCAA tournament. The Flames featured four veterans with vast experience, a regular junior to Elijah Cuffee and stellar youngsters ready for the bright lights of March Madness.

This opportunity has been swept away by the pandemic.

Those who returned for the 2020-21 season have set a goal of returning to the NCAA tournament. This is exactly what the Flames did.

They won their third ASUN Conference title in three seasons in the league. Darius McGhee won the program’s second consecutive ASUN Player of the Year title. And the triumph over North Alabama in the league title game was closer than expected.

“It’s a blessing to be able to qualify for the tournament,” said Liberty coach Ritchie McKay. “It’s really hard to do. I know the guys in that locker room, I know they’re very grateful for this opportunity and very grateful to the people they can do it with.

Liberty was unable to reclaim her 2019 NCAA tournament magic as Oklahoma State used a dominant second half to take out the Flames.

2. Keegan McDowell gives a second chance

Liberty vs. North Alabama Basketball

Liberty University forward Keegan McDowell puts a space between the ball and his defender during a game against the University of North Alabama at Liberty Arena on February 22.

Kendall Warner, The News and Advance

There is at least one story of well-being in a magical season. This came from a veteran present who left the program before having any doubts.

Keegan McDowell spent the 2019-20 season watching every home game from the stands at the Vines Center. He told the team just before the season opener against Radford that he was in a red shirt with the intention of switching to another program.

It was an unusual sight to see a former player in the stands. McKay kept McDowell in an attempt to bring him back into the fold, but McDowell was steadfast in his decision to find a program where he could get some playing time.

When McDowell changed his mind, McKay greeted him with open arms, and the rest is history.

“I think all year of not playing and having that kind of hold when I’ve played every year all my life, it’s just easy to see how well Coach McKay and his team are doing. care about us and are there for us as more than just basketball players, ”McDowell said. “My thought process was just to be able to play for a staff like that. No matter what happens, it’s worth it.

McDowell provided a young Liberty team with a veteran presence. He helped the Flames reach the 2021 NCAA tournament and is a starter for the 2021-22 team chosen to win the ASUN title for a fourth consecutive season.

3. Jill Bolton’s spectacular super senior season

Liberty Field Hockey

Liberty forward Jill Bolton retains the ball against Northwestern in a September 7 game at Liberty Field Hockey Field. Bolton was named the National Field Hockey Coaches Association Division I Player of the Year.

Kendall Warner photos, The News & Advance

Jill Bolton didn’t like the way the 2021 spring season ended, and her only reason to return to Liberty for her super senior season was to win a Big East Championship before her field hockey career ended. .

She made her dream come true, and so much more, during the show’s most successful season to date.

Bolton rewrote Liberty’s record books and capped her stellar career by becoming the school’s first NCAA Division I athlete to be named National Player of the Year.

She and her teammates also shocked the field hockey world. They used the motivation of being snubbed in the spring to dominate UConn for the Big East Championship, then stunned No.1 seed Rutgers to advance to the Final Four.

Bolton helped Liberty qualify for his first NCAA Division I National Championship game where he fell to Northwestern.

“We’ve had one hell of a season,” said Bolton, “and what more could you want? “

4. Liberty wins third bowl game in a row

Bowl LU game

Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze receives the trophy after beating Eastern Michigan in the LendingTree Bowl played on December 18 at Hancock Whitney Stadium at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama.

Kendall Warner, The News and Advance

Football coach Hugh Freeze has said on several occasions since joining in December 2018 that his goal every season is to play in a bowl game. Liberty is the most recent program of the FBS until July 1, 2022, when James Madison becomes the 131st member of the subdivision, and bowling in the first few seasons will only accelerate the growth of the program.

Liberty did so in each of her three bowl-eligible seasons, and in the process joined Appalachian State and Marshall as the only programs to play in three bowl games in the first three seasons after the transition from FCS. at FBS.

The Flames, led by electric quarterback Malik Willis, broke a 7-2 record to open the 2021 season before falling to Ole Miss, Louisiana and Army to close the campaign.

Willis’ decision to play in the LendingTree Bowl paid off. He scored five touchdowns as the Flames claimed a 56-20 victory.

This allowed Liberty to join Appalachian State as the only programs to win three bowl games in their first three eligible seasons.

5. Liberty Football Alumnus Overwhelmed by Smith Strong Golf Fundraiser Support

Doug Smith Advantage

Appomattox football coach Doug Smith stands up to his fingertips with Kelvin Edwards (right to left), Fred Banks and Jay Wingfield to determine how many raffle tickets will be purchased at a fundraising tournament for three days for the coach at the Falling River Country Club on July 30.

Kendall Warner, The News and Advance

Doug Smith has made an indelible impact on the Appomattox community as the Raiders football coach. He left a lasting impact on his Liberty University teammates as a wide receiver, and those former teammates have shown up in droves to help Smith when needed.

Wide receivers Kelvin Edwards and Fred Banks and others were among the many who flocked to the Falling River Country Club for three days. The Smith Strong Golf Fundraiser raised funds that went directly to Smith and his family to help offset the costs of Smith’s hospital bills in his battle with multiple myeloma.

“I really can’t put it into words. It’s too hard, ”Smith said. “I would never be able to thank anyone, any of those who have done enough of this stuff. I cannot thank them enough. All I can do is pray for them and hope that God blesses them the same way I have been blessed. It’s my prayer anyway.

Edwards and Banks spent a scorching Friday morning and afternoon reliving the stories of their playing days. Smith was at the center of these stories as a member of the “Air Posse” which helped Liberty thrive in the rise of its program.

The conversations lasted for hours and brought back memories for Smith. Smith made more memories over a weekend when hundreds of people showed up to Falling River to play a round of golf and help out when needed.

“The support for this event has been enormous. It’s unlike anything I’ve been through, ”said Falling River PGA Professional Faber Jamerson.

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