LYNCHBURG, Va. -- The Liberty men's lacrosse team's spring 2018 schedule is the most geographically diverse in club history, with 10 of the Flames' 11 opponents based in different states.
The 11th — SouthEastern Lacrosse Conference (SELC) Northwest division foe George Washington — is located in Washington, D.C.
The Flames — who narrowly missed the MCLA National Championships powered by Under Armour for the fourth straight season since moving up from the Division II level. It occurred despite Liberty ending the 2017 season ranked No. 16 in the final MCLA Division I poll, but now the Flames will open the 2018 slate at SELC foes Tennessee on Feb. 23 and South Carolina on Feb. 25.
"With the strength of our schedule, we won't have any room to ease into our season," Liberty coach Kyle McQuillan said. "South Carolina finished ranked just outside of the Top 25. We played them in the playoffs last year and they gave us a great game and they knocked off Virginia Tech in the regular season this year."
The Flames will host three Top 10 teams at the Liberty Lacrosse Field — No. 5 Colorado (March 9), No. 7 Arizona State (March 10), and No. 8 Virginia Tech (April 13) in the regular-season-ending showdown.
"It's probably one of our more competitive schedules, and the benefit is we get to play those three games here," McQuillan said. "We've made the trip out to Arizona and Colorado the past two years and now they're returning the favor."
Over its spring break, Liberty will travel to Maryland, a hotbed for lacrosse, to compete in the Battle of Baltimore. There, the Flames will challenge two teams they lost to last spring — No. 17 Connecticut on March 23 and No. 14 Michigan State on March 24.
During the offseason, Liberty expanded its locker room facilities in its East Campus Athletic Complex to accommodate its growing roster, making space for up to 40 players.
"Last year, we had 26 or 27 players at our healthiest and this year we start with 35," McQuillan said. "It's nice to know we have some more depth and the locker room expansion was a huge help in allowing us to do this."
The Flames added five preferred walk-ons during tryouts in early September and brought in one transfer — Austin Aguilar, who took faceoffs last season for Bridgewater College, an NCAA Division III program.
For the second year in a row, Liberty's roster is dominated by underclassmen.
"We've got one senior again this year, but a really big sophomore class because of how big our freshman class was last year," McQuillan said. "They matured a lot and this year will be their opportunity to grow and build on what they accomplished last year."
The majority of the Flames' offseason recruits were defenders, which will be a strength of this year's team.
"We've got a lot of depth in all areas, but we're really, really deep on defense," McQuillan said. "We've got about 14 D poles and two goalies and the rest will be short-stick players — middies and attackmen. Our biggest struggle on the defensive side of the ball will be finding ways to get players that deserve to be on the field on the field. We might be creative and have different lines of defensive players or switch some long poles to short poles to become defensive middies."
Over Homecoming Weekend, Liberty will host its annual Alumni Game on Friday, Oct. 13, followed by its Fall Tournament on Saturday, Oct. 14.
The Flames will welcome one NAIA team — Montreat (N.C.) College, coached by former Liberty goalie Ethan Kamholtz; one NCAA Division III team, Randolph College in Lynchburg; and one NCAA Division I team, Hampton University.
"That will be a good test for us," McQuillan said. "We're looking forward to it because there's a wide range of teams coming that will give us a different look and a different caliber of athlete."
The Flames will conclude their fall schedule at Virginia Tech on Nov. 3. The past four seasons, the SELC Northwest regular-season title and top seed in the SELC Championships has been determined by the showdown between the Flames and the Hokies, who needed triple overtime to pull out a 14-13 home win last spring.
"We're trying to build that rivalry," McQuillan said. "Everything always leads up to that last game of the fall schedule and then the last game of the spring against Virginia Tech. There are teams that always bring out the best in each other and Virginia Tech will continue to be that for us."
The Flames hope to make their fifth consecutive trip north of Atlanta to compete in the SELC Championships for an opportunity to clinch their first automatic bid to the MCLA championships in Salt Lake City, Utah, in mid-May by capturing the tournament title.