Oct 27, 2009

New Faces, Same Team

by Axel Cerny

A lot has transpired for the Liberty Flames men’s basketball team since March.

After a disappointing Big South semifinal loss to Radford and a strong showing in the CIT tournament, the team expected to lose one of their leaders in senior Anthony Smith, but they had no clue that, come next fall, they would be coached by Dale Layer (who was hired after Ritchie McKay left for the University of Virginia) and would be returning only two of their starters from a season before.

Some might be writing off this year’s Flames squad as too young and inexperienced, but walking into one of their preseason practices, it is fairly apparent that none of their players fit that description. Senior forward Kyle Ohman has been a part of some of the very successful teams of late including last year’s squad that went 23-12 overall, with a 12-6 record in the Big South, and he is clearly excited about the possibilities for this year’s team.

“We know we have the right pieces…I’d say we’re more balanced on offense and have a better defensive mindset than we did last year,” Ohman said.

It clearly was not just Ohman who believes in the future of this team, though. Through the last whistle of practice, players were at peak intensity and appeared to feed off of Coach Layer’s every word, as a lot of upbeat banter paired with the sounds of squeaking sneakers filled the gym.

Along with Ohman, leadership from experience is definitely expected out of sophomore point guard and returning starter, Jesse Sanders. Sanders could be seen, immediately following the practice, leading a few of the other guards in some high intensity ball handling drills on the sideline.

“I’m really looking forward to a clean start,” Sanders said, “I feel more solid of a leadership role this year, after my experiences with last year’s team.”

The Flames will be counting on that leadership from their two returning starters on a team that features 11 underclassman, but so far so good, according to Coach Layer.

“The team has shown a terrific work ethic so far. We are definitely a work in progress, but I have really appreciated our intensity,” Layer said.

The Liberty coach, along with a few other players seemed to tab transfer sophomore David Minaya as someone to watch out for, in helping to fill the gaps left from the departures of players like Anthony Smith and Seth Curry.

According to players, Layer has definitely brought a few changes to the team, mostly integrating a general toughness into their preseason that returners to the team did not have before. One such change involved a physically challenging eight-day boot camp before practices that included many repetitions of push-up, sit-ups, sprints and other conditioning tools.

One can be sure that Liberty fans are hoping some of this new toughness can help a young team overcome the trials of a long NCAA schedule. For the Flames, the schedule is one that features some tough opponents, including a three-game stretch against Old Dominion at home, Clemson at home and Notre Dame away. Some have high hopes for this young talented squad. Others are a little nervous. But when the opening game rolls around and the players get set for tip-off, there is no doubt that players in the huddle have all bought into Coach Layer’s enthusiasm for this upcoming season of Liberty basketball.

Contact Axel Cerny at acerny@gmail.com.

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