25th Anniversary Profile: Liberty Track & Field

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – As part of the Big South Conference’s 25th Anniversary celebration in 2008-09, which is presented by Royal Purple, the Conference is profiling each week the Top 25 “Best of the Best” moments in League history.  This week’s feature is Liberty University’s Championship Track & Field programs.

A video vignette on Liberty’s track & field domination, featuring Associate Head Coach Lance Bingham, can be viewed on the Big South’s website, www.BigSouthSports.com, under the 25th Anniversary Media Center banner.  In addition, video vignettes around all the Top 25 “Best of the Best” moments are available for viewing online.

The summer of 1991 was a turning point for the Big South Conference.  In June of that year, the Conference announced the addition of men’s and women’s outdoor track & field and women’s soccer as official Conference championship sports beginning with the 1993-94 academic year.  Later on July 1, Liberty University officially joined the Big South Conference, and immediately announced its presence in capturing the 1991 Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Championships.  The Flames repeated as Cross Country champions in both sports in 1992.  Those back-to-back titles were just a preview of what was to come.

Of the 52 men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track & field championships in Big South history, Liberty University has won 42 of them.  The Flames have won all 11 Men’s Indoor Track Conference Championships – the longest championship streak for any sport in Big South history.  In addition, they won a record six straight women’s indoor titles from 1998-03, a record 10 consecutive women’s outdoor track championships from 1994-03, and a League-best nine men’s outdoor track titles in a row from 1994-02.  Here is a closer look at Liberty’s Big South track & field supremacy, which has all come under the direction and leadership of Head Coach Brant Tolsma.

Liberty hosted the inaugural Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships on Saturday, April 23, 1994, and took home the men’s and women’s crown by wide margins.  Liberty’s women’s team posted a score of 186, more than 70 points ahead of the runner-up finisher.  The men’s squad was even more dominant, with its 282 points and 153-point margin of victory.  It was the first of 10 consecutive Conference championships for the women and nine-straight titles for the men.

During the men’s championship run, the 1994 Flames men’s track team was led by Jacob Swinton (sprints) and Ryan Werner (decathlon) – who both became the Big South’s first-ever track & field All-Americans.  In addition, the Flames finished second at the prestigious IC4A Championship, which was the beginning of a run of seven successive years among the top three in the IC4A.  In 1995, Liberty finished second at the IC4A Championship and Werner was named an All-American for his fourth-place finish in the decathlon at the NCAA Championships.  Werner would earn his third All-American honor in the decathlon in 1996, a year in which Liberty upset heavily-favored George Mason to win the IC4A Championship.

In January 1997, the Big South added men’s and women’s indoor track & field as championship sports, beginning in 1997-98.  Liberty christened the Big South’s first season of indoor track by capturing both the men’s and women’s indoor titles in February 1998.  The Flames and Lady Flames proved to be equally successful outdoors, as both teams won their fifth-straight outdoor crown.  The men’s team also tied Manhattan for third at the IC4A Championships, making the Flames arguably the most consistent team in the Conference over the previous five years.

Liberty again won both the indoor and outdoor men’s Big South Track & Field Championships in 1999.  The men’s team finished second in the IC4A Championships for the fifth time in six years.  Greg Benhase, Mike Decker, Ken Howell and James Johnson represented Liberty at the NCAA Championships, and Benhase and Howell became Liberty’s fifth and sixth All-Americans, both competing in the decathlon.

The year 2000 was a year of individual firsts for the Liberty track & field teams.  Decker became LU’s first NCAA Division I indoor All-American by finishing 10th overall in the 400 meters, and Andrea Wildrick pole vaulted 13’ 1½” to become Liberty’s first women’s All-American since the program moved to the Division I level in 1989.  Decker repeated his All-American performance on the outdoor track, becoming the first Liberty and Big South track & field athlete to win All-America honors in both indoor and outdoor track.  Josh Jones won All-America honors in the decathlon – Liberty’s eighth Division I All-American decathlete.  In addition to the sweep of the Big South Conference indoor and outdoor championships, the men’s team finished second at the IC4A Championship, while the women posted an 18th-place standing at the ECAC Championships.

In 2001, Liberty extended its Big South outdoor championship streaks to eight, while repeating as indoor champions.  The Lady Flames continued their progress with their 12th-place finish at the indoor ECAC Championships – their highest finish ever up to that point in history.  Unfortunately, the men’s seven-year string of IC4A top three finishes came to an end.  But Decker captured his third All-America honor with his fifth-place finish in the 400-meter dash at the NCAA Indoor Championship.

The 2002 season was clearly the greatest season in the history of the Lady Flames’ Track & Field program.  Heather Sagan became the first athlete in Liberty and Big South Conference history to win a National Championship, as she won the 2002 indoor mile run, while placing second in the Outdoor National Championships in the 1,500-meter run.  Wildrick finished runner-up in the pole vault at the Outdoor Championships.  Liberty’s women’s track & field team placed 15th in the nation in both the indoor and outdoor seasons.  That same year, freshman Danielle McNaney qualified for nationals in the heptathlon and placed fourth at the USA Junior Nationals.  Sagan was named the U.S. Track Coaches Association Scholar-Athlete of the Year and the NCAA’s Woman of the Year for Virginia.

The Flames saw their Big South championship runs snapped in 2003 (men’s outdoor) and 2004 (women’s outdoor and women’s indoor).  In 2005, McNaney and Kena Butts gave the Lady Flames national exposure, while freshmen Josh McDougal and Brandon Hoskins did the same for the men.  McDougal and Hoskins became the first Liberty athletes to earn All-America honors as freshmen.  McNaney earned her second Academic All-America honor and Butts qualified for nationals in the high jump, both indoors and outdoors.  McNaney placed 11th at nationals in the heptathlon as well.

In 2006, McDougal became the first athlete in Big South history to record a “triple crown” of All-America honors for his achievements during the cross country and indoor and outdoor track seasons.  Hoskins also qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Track Championships.  In 2007, the Flames completed their first Big South “triple crown” since the 1999-00 season, sweeping the cross country, indoor track and outdoor track team titles.  The Flames also won their second IC4A outdoor title and first since 1996, led by an unprecedented 1,500, 5K, 10K sweep by McDougal.  Hoskins garnered his second career All-America mention, taking seventh in the decathlon at the NCAA meet, while Jon Hart and Clendon Henderson became the first two Liberty throwers to qualify for nationals.  As a team, Liberty’s men tied Arizona State for 22nd at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, their best-ever finish at the national meet as well as the first-ever Top 25 placing by a Big South men’s squad.  On the women’s side, Carol Jefferson made her first national appearance, running the 10,000 meters at the Outdoor Championships.

The 2008 season was not only an Olympic year, but it was also a banner year for the Liberty men’s track & field program.  The Flames completed their second straight Big South “triple crown” of cross country, indoor and outdoor track championships and repeated as IC4A outdoor champions.  Liberty, ranked as high as No. 7 nationally during the indoor track & field season, boasted a pair of All-Americans.  McDougal finished his career as a 14-time All-American and Henderson became the first Liberty thrower to earn All-America recognition, finishing third in the discus at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships.  Henderson was one of two Liberty alumni to participate in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, throwing the discus while McNaney competed in the heptathlon.
 
Liberty’s Track & Field Championships is one of the Top 25 “Best of the Best” moments in League history.  The Conference is conducting an online fan poll to help determine the Top Moment in the first 25 years of the Big South Conference.  Voting is open on www.BigSouthSports.com and continues through March 25.  Fan voting will be combined with the 25th Anniversary Committee’s votes to come up with the official rank order of the “Best of the Best” moments.  The countdown will be unveiled at the concluding 25th Anniversary banquet in May 2009.

(Portions of this profile provided by Liberty’s Athletics Communications Office).

“Best of the Best” Profiles will resume the week of January 5, 2009