Sixty-two teams heard their names called and selections affirmed for the NCAA Division I baseball tournament Monday afternoon, and the final pairing was about to be announced.
Liberty, hoping to be one of 34 teams selected for at-large bids, anxiously awaited the final matchup in the Knoxville Regional.
The video of Wright State players celebrating their selection was still on the television screen when the bracket revealed the name the players in the lounge at Liberty Baseball Stadium had been waiting 38 minutes to see on their screen: Liberty.
The Flames still had life in their season.
“Pure elation, I would say, is the best way to describe it, especially after sweating out 62 of the other teams getting called before us,” senior third baseman Trey McDyre said.
Liberty was selected as the No. 3 seed in the Knoxville Regional. The Flames’ opponent is a familiar one in Duke, the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champion.
The teams meet at noon Friday inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network.
The other side of the bracket in the Knoxville Regional features No. 3 national seed and host Tennessee (45-16) against Horizon League champion Wright State (35-11). Those teams play at 6 p.m. Friday on ESPN3.
The Volunteers won the SEC Eastern Division title and were the No. 2 seed in that league’s tournament. They lost to No. 1 national seed Arkansas in the SEC championship game.
“When you start looking at the things that you desire in your regional as far as familiarity and … the travel’s not too bad, I think this is a great draw for us and one that, if I had to choose, is a pretty good scenario,” Flames coach Scott Jackson said.
Liberty (39-14), the ASUN Conference regular-season champion, met Duke (32-20) twice during the regular season. The Blue Devils swept the season series against the Flames, winning 5-4 on March 30 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park and posting a 7-0 shutout April 20 at Liberty Baseball Stadium.
The Flames and Blue Devils have played 19 times since the beginning of the 2009 season.
“I think it’s very exciting that we get a chance to run up against them,” senior shortstop Cam Locklear said.
Liberty is in regional play for the seventh time in program history (1993, 1998, 2000, 2013, 2014 and 2019), and this season’s squad joins the 2014 team as those that made the 64-team field as an at-large.
The 2019 team opened the Chapel Hill Regional against Tennessee, and the Flames won the opener 6-1. The Volunteers, though, returned the favor two days later by winning 6-5 in an elimination game.
“I’m definitely excited to go down to Knoxville and play in Tennessee,” McDyre said.
Duke enters the Knoxville Regional as one of the nation’s hottest teams. The Blue Devils have won 12 straight games, including four triumphs in the ACC tournament.
Duke beat Virginia 4-2 in the semifinals and edged North Carolina State 1-0 in the title game.
“They’re hot right now,” McDyre said of Duke. “If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. We’re in a tough regional, so it will be good.”
Despite having to wait until the final pairing was announced, Liberty was safely in as an at-large team. The selection committee revealed Alabama, Michigan, North Carolina and UC Santa Barbara were the last four teams in the field.
Liberty’s resume featured an RPI of 36 and the nation’s 10th-best nonconference strength of schedule. The Flames played seven teams in the NCAA field, including ASUN tournament champion Jacksonville, and posted a 7-11 record against those squads.
“It’s what you play for, man. It’s the best feeling that I think you can experience as a college baseball team. I’m elated for our players to get to experience that,” Jackson said.
“It’s just different when you’re an at-large team and not an automatic qualifier, and there’s some angst and anxiety. I kind of just stood back there and watched our players. You’re just trying to soak it all in because these are the moments. This is why you come to Liberty, right? You come to Liberty to win and play in the NCAA Tournament. To have them get rewarded for it is just an unbelievable feeling for me as a coach.”