Liberty baseball team hopes for return to Region II tournament in 2013
Friday, Mar. 15
Jeff Crane’s career as Liberty High baseball coach has been characterized by success, as he steered the Eagles from a long quiet period into their first regional playoff appearance since 2002 last year.
Liberty lost to Heritage, 8-6, in that game but look well-armed for a return to the regionals.
With seven returning starters, Liberty has every significant player back except all-district outfielder Ryan Ramirez, who graduated, and Chris Vorrath, who broke his ankle near the end of basketball season.
Liberty's cast includes a deep rotation anchored by returning all-district pitcher Logan Aylor, and also including Andrew Summers and Brock Smith.
The infield looks rock solid, led by returning standouts in shortstop Quentin Rodney, catcher C.J. Lindsay, second baseman Derek Dueling and third baseman Andrew Summers.
Austin Booth returns as the leadoff hitter and right fielder.
The Eagles’ attack is further bolstered by the arrival of Forest Park High transfer Austyn Stewart, the likely starter in center field, and Virginia Tech-bound football superstar Wyatt Teller, who played varsity baseball as a freshman and sophomore.
“You go through cycles and we’re in a positive cycle now. With who we have returning, I feel hopeful the guys will do well this year,” said Crane.
While Crane is a classic stoic manager, never giving too much away, he and the team’s nine seniors are hungry to repeat last year’s 14-6 breakout yet do not want to sound cocky.
While the Kettle Run baseball team openly proclaimed its wish to make the state tournament last year, Crane, 55, is far more cautious, an approach that has served him well.
Entering his fourth year, the former Virginia State Trooper has revitalized a program that produced numerous sub.-500 years in a row before breaking above .500 the last two years, going a combined 24-15.
Asked about his Liberty's bright promise this year, Crane spoke without excitement when he said, “I don’t want to comment, other than to say all the games are tough and you can't take anyone for granted. Baseball is a funny game, anything can happen. They better get up there and play as hard as they can every game.”
Based on its experience and talent ― both Rodney and Lindsay are likely to play college baseball next year ― Liberty is one of the Evergreen District favorites. The Eagles started last season on a 10-1 run and ended up winning their most games since 2005.
Liberty pinned an early non-district win on the powerful Cougars last year before losing twice in the regular season. The last LHS-KRHS meeting produced an epic 3-2 Kettle Run win in eight innings and handed the district title to the Cougars. Liberty finished second in the district at 5-3 and got the Region II playoff berth when the district tournament was wiped out due to weather issues, depriving Liberty a potential rematch with Kettle Run.
Liberty’s lineup is so experienced this year that Crane has his batting order largely identified, with veterans returning to familiar spots. He's identified who plays where in different pitching scenarios – even though the team has been outside for practice just three times.
He can certainly name his probable No. 1, 2 and 3 pitchers and his closer, mentioning Aylor as the staff ace, followed by Summers No. 2 and Smith No. 3, with Rodney the closer.
Aylor was first team all-district as a sophomore and also played varsity as a freshman. "This year as a junior he's got more experience under his belt. I'm looking for big things out of him," said Crane.
Smith was a revelation as a freshman and impressed Crane with his demeanor and work ethic.
Of Summers, Crane said, "He's our third baseman but he pitched well last year and we want to get more innings out of him."
Other pitchers include Derek Dueling, who was injured part of last season and returned to perform well. Crane wants to be careful with Dueling, the Eagles’ starting second baseman.
“He tells me his arm is OK. If he's healthy, he’ll pitch a fair number of innings,” said Crane.
A newcomer is Ryan Fogle, who shined as a JV pitcher. Another pitching option is outfielder Coy Brown.
All Liberty’s pitchers are righties, so the team is trying to develop big, hard-throwing left-handed newcomer Thomas Hough as a reliever.
“He wanted to play and looked good in tryouts,” said Crane. “Lefties are hard to come by and he throws pretty hard. Towards the middle or end of the season we hope he can get in some kind of groove.”
Other contributors could be Dylan Warnell, Matt Warren and Brandon Bailey.
Crane said Warren is an excellent athlete with a remarkable vertical jump. “He’s got advanced physical conditioning. I thought he could help us,” the coach said.
It's remains to be seen if Teller, an all-American football player, can emerge from his two years away from baseball to become a power hitter in the middle of the order.
With the introduction of softer BBCor bats last year, high school baseball changed dramatically. Teams hit very few home runs, and Liberty was no exception, with only Lindsay and Smith hitting balls over the fence, said Crane.
At 6-foot-5, and 260 pounds, Teller could be a power bat.
"He sure looks good in a uniform," Crane said.
Tuesday’s scheduled season opener at Eastern View was canceled leaving Friday’s game at Spotsylvania as the likely first game.
“With all the freezing and thawing of all the snow we had, the infield looks like a chocolate milk shake,” said Crane.
- - - - - - - - - -
Projected Liberty batting order
1. Austin Booth, Jr., RF
2. Derek Dueling, Sr., 2B/P
3. Quentin Rodney, Sr., SS/RP
4. C.J. Lindsay, Sr., C
5. Brock Smith, Soph., P/3B/OF
6. Austyn Stewart, Soph., CF
7. Wyatt Teller, Sr., DH/1B
8. Andrew Summers, Sr., P/3B
9. Logan Aylor , Jr.,P/1B
Liberty Season History
Year Record Coach
2003 5-13 Mark Holmes
2004 15-6 Ted Currle
2005 9-12 Ted Currle
2006 7-14 Ted Currle
2007 9-11 Mark Holmes
2008 3-16 Mark Holmes
2009 7-14 Chad Wright
2010 6-13 Jeff Crane
2011 10-9 Jeff Crane
2012 14-6 Jeff Crane