Three Strikes: Liberty Surges, C-USA Postseason Hopes, Abilene Christian

Image credit: Liberty CF Derek Orndorff (Photo courtesy of Liberty)

Liberty Surges Out to Fast Start

Liberty lost on Opening Day to Florida by a 7-2 score, an understandable road loss to a ranked SEC team. 

But instead of the rest of that series going as anticipated, the Flames fought back to win the next two games, and they haven’t lost since. Coming off of a 1-0 win over North Carolina in a fantastic atmosphere in Lynchburg Tuesday, Liberty has won 11 straight games. 

A lot has gone right for the Flames, but there have a been a few primary catalysts for the hot start. 

One has been the emergence of center fielder Derek Orndorff as the centerpiece of the lineup. A transfer from Division II Seton Hill (Pa.) who began his career at Penn State, Orndorff has put up video game numbers so far and is doing a little bit of everything for the Flames. He’s hitting .432/.625/1.243, he’s 6-for-6 in stolen bases, he has more walks (11) and nearly as many hit by pitches (eight) as he has strikeouts (nine), and last weekend in Liberty’s sweep of Canisius, he added three more home runs, giving him 10 on the season.

Not only did that total put him in the lead nationally coming out of the weekend, but it puts him two-thirds of the way to his career-high mark at Seton Hill, which was 15 last season. 

“Just a wonderful kid and the way he carries himself and the way he goes about his business, usually the game rewards that,” said Liberty coach Scott Jackson. “Maybe not so much 10 home runs in the first 11 games sometimes, but I think that’s what you’re seeing here.”

Orndorff has gotten plenty of help from right fielder Aaron Anderson (.347/.439/.694), who was the Flames’ top hitter a season ago. Interestingly, Anderson was also a Division II transfer before arriving at Liberty, having spent the 2017-2020 seasons at Flagler (Fla.). 

Liberty had some information on both of them and knew they were good players who might be able to help, but what put them over the top were recommendations from others made directly to Jackson and his staff.

“We got a text message from former player Dan Hodges down in Jacksonville, Florida, about Aaron Anderson,” Jackson said. “And then I got a text message from a kid named Ryan Sloniger, who used to catch at Penn State, who was a teammate of Orndorff’s at Penn State, (he) reached out to us and said ‘hey, this is one of the greatest teammates I’ve ever had. He’s got interest in Liberty.’ And here we are, with the middle of our order coming from Division II.”

Another massive development is the performance of lefthander Joe Adametz III at the front of the rotation. He’s given up just one earned run this season in 16 innings across three starts, and that came way back on Opening Day against Florida. Crucially, of the 13 hits he’s allowed this season, just one has gone for extra bases. 

After missing all of the 2021 season in recovery from Tommy John surgery, there was uncertainty about what to expect from Adametz this season, but he’s answered the bell in a big way. 

“He actually had the surgery in the summer of 2020, so we’ve had a year and a half,” Jackson said. “It hasn’t been anything that we’ve had to rush with his recovery. Along the way, there’s been a better understanding of how to take care of his body, a better understanding, I think, of his delivery, the chance to gain some weight and get up over 200 (pounds), closer to 210. His average fastball has been 90.9 (mph), which I think the strength level and understanding his body and how he’s moving better helps. I think what you’re seeing is ‘hey, let’s hit the pause button in the middle of your college career for a year and a half and allow you to be better in the weight room, be better with your diet, be better with your routine.’ ”

The bullpen has also been a strength, with lefthander Mason Fluharty (10 IP), righthander Trey Carter (6.1 IP) and righthander Cade Hungate (5 IP) all having appeared five or more times without giving up a run, and fully, there are seven different relievers who have appeared so far who haven’t given up a run. Righthander David Erickson (1.29 ERA) has also struck out 12 batters in seven innings. That unit has been a huge part of Liberty putting up a 2.44 team ERA. 

“We felt like it was going to be a huge strength of ours, just from a depth standpoint,” Jackson said. “I remember coming off the field (after) a scrimmage and looking at (pitching coach) Matt (Williams) and saying ‘How are we going to get all these guys out there?’ Because we’ve just got depth with our bullpen and it’s just a really good feeling. I’ve got to give Matt all the credit. When he came here, he wanted to get that kind of depth and have different looks and be able to keep these guys fresh.”

Liberty set a high bar in 2021. It ran away with the ASUN regular-season title by going 19-2 in conference play, and as a three seed, advanced to the final of the Knoxville Regional. 

The road might be a bit more pothole-ridden this time around, simply by virtue of it being difficult to be that kind of dominant two seasons in a row and the scheduling being tougher in 2022 because Liberty is part of the ASUN East alongside most of the rest of the conference title contenders. 

But there’s no reason to believe that Liberty can’t do something similar this season, and its hot start is just more evidence of that. 

What to Make of Conference USA’s 2022 Postseason Chances

Conference USA had a magical season in 2021. Four teams—Charlotte, Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi—made regionals, the most for the league since 2016. 

That was mostly because those four teams were really, really good, but it was also an important factor that the RPI, which teams only have so much control of, ended up in their favor when it was all said and done. 

With that in mind, there were two ways to think about C-USA’s prospects for 2022. On one hand, all four of those teams, plus perennial regional contender Florida Atlantic, brought back good teams capable of making the postseason. 

But on the other hand, those teams could all be every bit as good as they were last season, and if the RPI math doesn’t break right for them, it could just as easily be something like a two-bid league. 

It’s too early to know which way that’s going to go, and it’s far too early to read anything into RPI, but we can certainly start to point to some things that could have an impact—good or bad—when it’s time to stack up postseason resumes.  

On the positive side of the ledger, a number of teams in the league have captured impressive wins already. Louisiana Tech won a midweek game with Louisiana State and did manage to salvage a game in a series against Tulane. Charlotte has a win over Connecticut. Southern Miss has a win against Mississippi State. Florida Atlantic split two games with Michigan at home. Texas-San Antonio won a midweek game against Stanford. Western Kentucky already has a win over Kentucky. Marshall won two games against Northeastern, a team that just swept North Carolina State. 

But therein lies what may actually make life more difficult for Conference USA teams looking to get into the postseason, however. Perhaps the league is a little too deep this season. The secret piece of C-USA’s postseason formula in 2021 was that there were four very good teams at the top of the conference and then there were a lot of teams that weren’t very good, with very little in between, save for FAU, which made a push for the postseason but couldn’t quite get there.

The upshot was that all of the teams in postseason contention more or less split the games they played against each other and beat everyone else almost without exception. There just was no middle class to speak of in Conference USA in 2021. That type of scenario playing out again seems exceedingly unlikely. 

In addition to the usual suspects, Alabama-Birmingham looks improved in its first year under Casey Dunn with an 8-3 record. At 9-4, Marshall not only looks improved but will likely eclipse its overall win total from last year (10) at some point this week. UTSA seems unlikely to finish under .500, as it did last season in league play and overall. It just seems safe to assume that C-USA will beat up on each other more this time around, which in turn will mean more losses for the top teams, which will hurt postseason resumes. 

Even if that comes to pass, though, the saving grace might just be that the league’s top teams are going to get chances for resume-boosting wins. Geography being what it is, the teams that are going to be in the postseason mix at the business end of the season will get plenty of chances at SEC or ACC teams during midweek games, and remember, there have to be 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament every year, and the bar to being an at-large team often isn’t as high in May as it feels like it should be in February and March. 

Consider that last season Charlotte (6-8), Louisiana Tech (10-13) and Southern Miss (9-11) all finished under .500 against RPI top 50 teams. Just collecting quality wins—whether in midweek games, as part of series wins or even as part of series losses—is the name of the game. Last season, C-USA’s best teams got boatloads of such chances because the quality of the league was improved and they took advantage. It remains to be seen if that will again be the case in 2022. 

The Slugging Wildcats of Abilene Christian

Regional four seeds that host teams absolutely do not want to see turn up in their regional come in a few different shapes and sizes. 

There are the four seeds with a Friday starter capable of stifling any opposing offense. There are the four seeds who have a lot of familiarity with the one seed, and perhaps even a recent history of beating the one seed. There are four seeds who play elite defense and don’t walk batters, forcing the one seed to play mistake-free baseball. Then there’s the category that Abilene Christian most easily falls into, and that’s the group of teams that can get hot and bludgeon the baseball against anyone. 

Through 11 games, the Wildcats have 21 home runs, good for 11th in the country. Their .565 slugging percentage is seventh in the country. And their .324 batting average places them 18th in the nation. 

Right fielder Colton Eager (.409/.462/.705), shortstop Bash Randle (.342/.479/.632) and catcher Mitchell Dickson (.306/.479/.417) lead the way in the lineup, but ACU is getting a little bit of something from a lot of players. Twelve different players have hit a home run and 14 players have earned at least one start in the lineup. 

This was more or less an expected outcome for a team that returned just about everyone from a lineup that hit .297/.397/.457 last season. It’s important context to understand that the Wildcats have played all but one game at home so far in what can oftentimes be windy, hitter-friendly conditions. 

Maybe that means it’s not a perfect fit for every regional environment, but if it can reach the postseason and get placed in a regional with a hitter’s park or with teams that aren’t particularly deep on the mound, Abilene Christian could prove to be a real thorn in the side.

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