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Large senior class, new coaches mesh for Liberty baseball

Posted 4/25/17

Liberty's Nick Hamilton (#13) tags out Centennial's Andy Kupec (#6) at third base Tuesday, April 18 at Liberty High School in Peoria. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

By Richard Smith

West …

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Large senior class, new coaches mesh for Liberty baseball

Liberty's Nick Hamilton (#13) tags out Centennial's Andy Kupec (#6) at third base Tuesday, April 18 at Liberty High School in Peoria. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

By Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

With its 13-player senior class together for most of the season and a new coaching staff taking over almost seamlessly, Liberty baseball is back where it expects to be as the playoffs loom — in contention for a state title.

The Lions finished their season 22-6 and assured of a top eight seed, which includes a bye and home game to open the 5A playoffs Saturday. Liberty should be the No. 2 or 3 seed.

And the team’s senior leadership core — while not guaranteeing anything — sent the other contenders a message. They believe this team can play better than it did in a regular season featuring marquee wins over Sunrise Mountain, Scottsdale Chaparral, Apollo and Centennial.

“Actually I would say we’re not even playing to the top of our capabilities. Our potential is higher than what it is right now,” senior shortstop Grant Lung said. “This group is unbelievable. We’ve come a long way since the last year. ”

Senior captains Tyler Hajjar, Derek Legeza and Grant Lung are the steadying influence, with timely hitting and sound defense. Fellow seniors Nick Hamilton, John Cherpak and Sam Stewart are Liberty’s top three RBI men.

Stewart, Travis Roberts and Matt Gillies provide bullpen help for younger starting pitchers. And the rest of the Class of 2017 chips in across the board, resulting in a deep, flexible roster.

For example, Coach Chris Raymond said Noah Tippery has stepped up as a .368 hitter in the No. 9 hole. He said senior Connor Norris has influenced many games as a pinch runner.

“We have a lot of kids playing roles. With the guys we have, we can play a lot of situational baseball. When we want defense we can play defense. When we need runners we can use our guys in plus situations,” Coach Raymond said.

Raymond took over the program in the summer after three-year coach John Freitas departed. He said his initial impressions were of a blue-collar work ethic in the offseason.

From the early practices, he knew this team could be something special. More than the clear talent on the Lions’ roster, this group has excelled in preparation and competitive mindset.

That made for a relatively easy transition for Raymond, an assistant for more than a decade at Sunrise Mountain. His staff is mostly new, though pitching coach Mike Schiefelbein and outfield coach Dan Cervantez were mainstays on Freitas’ staff.

“I think the kids see the way the field looks and the time commitment they receive on our end and it’s created that buy in,” Coach Raymond said. “It reflects in other phases of the game. The seniors saw the commitment level and respected it, which enabled the situation to be flourishing right now.”

For most of the seniors, though it’s a return to normalcy after a trying 2016 season.

Freitas guided a dynamic Class of 2015 to a Division I top six finish in 2014 and runner up spot in 2015.
Last year’s team was young to begin with and never played at full strength. The resulting 11-17 record and first non-playoff season for Liberty since 2009 stuck in this senior class’ mind.

Liberty's Grant Lung (#14) gets the out at second but is unable to make the second out at first base against Centennial Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at Liberty High School in Peoria. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

“Our new coach and staff got us out in the fall and brought us together, especially since we were kind of broken up last year. Doing all that hard work in the fall got us motivated for the season,” Lung said.

Perhaps no one looked forward to this season as much as Hajjar. He transferred to Liberty from Mountain Ridge last year.

Hajjar started as a sophomore on a Mountain Ridge team that lost to Liberty with a berth in the state title game at stake. Then, as the Lions 2016 season went south, his former Mountain Ridge teammates reached the Division I final.

“Coming over from Ridge and watching them go to the state championship, it was in the back of my mind,” Hajjar said. “But with this group I knew we were going to have that same opportunity the next year.”

Once the season started, however, Hamilton became this team’s most compelling redemption story. He is the only member of this class to start as a freshman.

After playing 12 games in 2016 Hamilton left the program. He said not being able to play game he loves left him in limbo until he received a second chance with a new staff

Coach Raymond said Hamilton is one of the hardest workers he has come across, putting in extra time on his hitting and lifting. The new coach said Hamilton has been tireless this season and easy to work with.

Monday, Hamilton was named the Northwest Region player of the year

“Having a clean slate meant everything. Giving me an opportunity to restart and refresh everything felt good,” Hamilton said.

Like Hamilton, Cherpak was a bit of an unknown after taking time away from baseball this fall, Raymond said.

Now this duo are examples for their teammates and the cornerstones of the Lions’ lineup. Hamilton leads the team in batting average (.476) RBI (25) and on base percentage (.560), while Cherpak paces the squad in home runs (6) and slugging percentage (.676).

Hamilton said the experience or reaching the 2015 finals will help this team once the playoffs start. Eight current seniors were on that roster and Hamilton and Lung started the title game.

The captains said the team’s young starting pitchers, junior Isaiah Montoya and sophomore Chandler Murphy, have worked hard and matured considerably since being thrown into the fray last year.

“I think it’s based on their mindset from last year to this year. They’ve been training hard all summer and fall and they just seem more focused on the mound,” Legeza said.

The power hitters and young aces may get the most attention. But Coach Raymond said the approach and defensive play of captains Hajjar, Legeza and Lung are the bedrock of this team.

“The cohesiveness of them is really special. They’re our guys up the middle. Grant Lung and Tyler Hajjar work as good as a (double play) pair as I’ve ever seen. They feed off each other and they compete so much and give the team that edge. Derek goes and gets balls as well as any center fielder that I’ve seen this year,” Coach Raymond said.
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