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Chasing Lions Part 2: The Stories
The following feature is the second of a two-part series about the Liberty men's basketball team known as Chasing Lions. To view Part 1, which includes a video on how the Flames arrived at the Big Dance, click here. Liberty will learn its place in the NCAA Tournament bracket, tomorrow night, at 6 p.m. on CBS.
Staring a season-opening 0-8 stretch in the face, the Liberty men's basketball team entered into a realm unknown to any other Flames squad in the program's 40-year existence. Marred by injuries and defections, the players who remained could have easily called it quits.
However, a veteran coach with unshakeable faith reminded his players that though their heads hung low, they still had a chance to wear championship hats.
The paragraphs below feature numerous stories surrounding the 2013 Flames squad as the team steps onto one of college basketball's biggest stages.
#1 Davon Marshall
When Marshall arrived at Liberty in the offseason, he thought he was going to be the Flames' go-to shooting guard. However, not long before the 2012-13 season started, he learned he'd be the team's floor general, carrying the mantle left after the graduation of Liberty's all-time assist leader and four-year starter, Jesse Sanders.
Of course, Marshall wasn't completely out of his element. He knew he could draw on the experience from his days playing backup point guard at Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y. Nonetheless, the idea of being the team's primary ball handler involved an adjustment period.
Following Liberty's loss to Georgetown, Layer made it clear to Marshall he possessed the coaching staff's trust and support to run the Flames' point.
In the final seconds of Liberty's game versus Georgia State, a buzzer-beating three-pointer sealed an 0-8 start for Liberty, a dark, unprecedented time in the program's 40-year history. After the game, Layer patted his point guard on the back and assured him things would get better. In hindsight, those words now ring true.
Nicknamed the Niagara Falls Ghost by teammates, Marshall's performances were seen and heard throughout the 2013 Big South Championship. Averaging 18.0 ppg in the four-game span, the junior went 20-of-33 (.606) from the field, 17-of-24 (.708) from three-point land and 15-of-16 (.938) at the foul line to earn tournament MVP honors.
When the scholarship offers did not come rolling in upon graduating high school, Marshall elected to go to junior college. Two and a half years later, the "Grand Marshall" is lacing up his dancing shoes on a grand stage.
#3 Casey Roberts
People often place student-athletes into two categories – scholarship players and walk-ons. While Casey Roberts falls into the latter, his play on the court does not. How many walk-ons do you know who have posted double-digit scoring figures inside the Verizon Center versus Georgetown?
Roberts' 13-point performance against the Hoyas earlier in the season did not go unnoticed by his teammates and coaches. From day one when Roberts chose to walk on at Liberty over other offers he received, Layer and his assistants knew they had more than the average non-scholarship player.
"There were definitely other schools that were very appealing and it would have been better financially," Roberts reflected. "But I just really felt the call from God to come here. Up until this point it's been one of the best decisions I've ever made."
#11 Andrew Smith
Before the start of the season, Dale Layer and his coaching staff mulled over the idea of redshirting Andrew Smith, a 6-9 forward with incredible athletic ability. However, when it was made clear that Antwan Burrus would not return to the Flames' lineup this season, Smith was forced to grow up quickly.
While he may not have filled the stat sheet for the Flames during the regular season, the Floridian forward gave the team a shot of adrenaline with his big blocks and authoritative alley-oops. Just before postseason play began, Smith's work ethic allowed him to crack the starting lineup, holding onto the nod throughout the Flames' impressive run in the Big South Championship.
#12 Tomasz Gielo
Heading into the 2012-13 campaign, Liberty's 6-9 Polish forward Tomasz Gielo was regarded by the Flames' coaching staff as one of the team's most improved players. However, days before the season began, Gielo sustained an injury, forcing him out of the first six games of Liberty's 0-8 stretch.
Upon returning to the floor, Gielo was an instant contributor, working his way into the starting lineup in his second game back. During the 2013 Big South Championship, Gielo turned things up a notch, scoring 14 points while hitting 3-of-4 three-pointers in the first round matchup versus tournament host Coastal Carolina.
In the quarterfinals, the sophomore's layup with less than two minutes remaining gave the Flames a six-point lead in the final 1:51, allowing Liberty to ultimately escape with the 61-60 win over the Panthers.
#21 Joel Vander Pol
Much like Gielo, center Joel Vander Pol was unable to take the court at the start of the 2012-13 season due to an injury. The redshirt junior underwent two lower back surgeries during the offseason, missing the first nine games of the year, including the 0-8 stretch.
When Vander Pol made his season debut against Howard, it took just 14 seconds for the Fort Myers, Florida native to record a blocked shot. From that moment on, Vander Pol has not looked back, playing a key role off the bench whenever called upon.
The 6-10 center's 11 points and seven rebounds in Liberty's 65-62 semifinal win against Gardner-Webb served as a welcomed surprise. Vander Pol's impact helped the Flames reach the finals for the first time in nine years before bringing home the program's third Big South Championship and NCAA Tournament bid.
"I'd say this team is a family now," Vander Pol stated during the semifinals postgame press conference.
"We've bonded the entire week. It's been exhausting at times, but the character on this team has been revealed. Guys have stepped up, but it's really turned into a family. Everyone is completely dialed in and sold out and that's what we need this time of year."
#22 Tavares Speaks
Undoubtedly one of Liberty's most consistent players, this season, Speaks began his collegiate at Cape Fear Community College under the tutelage of head coach and former Liberty captain Ryan Mantlo.
During his days at Liberty, Mantlo was a captain of the Flames' 2004 Big South Championship team and started for No. 16 seed Liberty in its second NCAA Tournament appearance against No. 1 seed St. Joseph's (March 18, 2004).
Nine years later, Speaks is following in the footsteps of his mentor in his senior year, becoming a member of the third team in program history to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
"It means a lot," Speaks said in the midst of Liberty's Big South Championship run. "We worked hard every day and never gave up. A lot of teams would have packed it up and went home. Coming into the conference tournament, we just knew we were supposed to be here."
#24 Antwan Burrus
Although he will not set foot on the court this season, Antwan Burrus has been the Flames' humble cheerleader. Poised to leave his mark in the Liberty record books, Burrus entered the 2012-13 campaign as the Flames' go-to guy inside the paint. People familiar with the program felt the senior would undoubtedly save his best year for last and his 15 first-half points in Liberty's blue-white scrimmage provided a strong indication.
However, in the second half of the scrimmage Burrus did not see much action and it soon became apparent the forward could miss more than a few games. It was later revealed that Burrus suffered from a stress reaction in his left foot, an injury the coaching staff remained hopeful about. While at one point it was believed the Winterville, N.C., native would eventually return, the decision was made in late December to don a medical redshirt, instead.
Last season, Burrus was able to give the Flames a jolt of energy when he hit a 30-foot buzzer beater that was featured at No. 2 on ESPN Sports Center's Top 10 Plays. This year, that same energy is felt in the locker room, the team bus, on the sidelines and everywhere else Burrus goes with Flames.
When watching the Flames burst onto the court after claiming the Big South Championship, Burrus' elation as he runs alongside the rest of his teammates is indescribable. Despite not being able to share the court with the rest of Flames until next season, No. 24 will continue to provide Liberty with a competitive influence that cannot be scouted.
#32 JR Coronado
Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, an area known as a baseball hotbed, JR Coronado had aspirations of being in the big leagues. However, injuries to his right shoulder altered those plans, turning a right handed pitcher into a two-handed rebounder.
"I was really good actually and I thought my future was baseball," Coronado recalled when asked about his high school baseball career. "We had a lot of scouts come to our school. I had to get surgery on my shoulder and after I came back and did rehab, I just wasn't the same."
With his chances at continuing to play on the diamond waning, Coronado began embracing a new game.
"My basketball career started when my AAU coach saw me walking around town" he said. "He saw that I was really tall, but I really didn't know how to play basketball. He brought me into the game and started teaching me."
Now several years later, Coronado is in his first season with the Flames after transferring from Palm Beach State. The junior has started 31-of-35 contests for the Flames, carrying the responsibility of being Liberty's primary rebounder with 8.2 boards per game.
#33 John Caleb Sanders
Flames fans familiar with the program know the story of John Caleb Sanders, but it is still a remarkable one to tell. The youngest of six children in the Sanders family, the Sugar Land, Texas, native grew up playing one-on-one basketball with his older brothers.
John Caleb witnessed his brother Thomas earn AP All-America Honorable Mention honors at Gardner-Webb in 2008, followed by Jesse in 2011 with the Flames.
In John Caleb's first two seasons at Liberty, he and Jesse were a tandem, stepping onto the court with an innate chemistry. With Jesse's departure at the conclusion of last season, John Caleb took a larger role as the Flames' on-court and locker room leader.
While he has not earned the same individual honors his brothers have, Liberty's leading scorer is now living the dream they all shared growing up, as he makes his first NCAA Tournament appearance.
During the Flames' Big South Championship run, John Caleb suffered a sprained ankle in Liberty's semifinal matchup against Gardner-Webb. Heading into the finals with Charleston Southern, the junior guard was unable to get a wink of sleep due to the pain. Despite the lack of rest, John Caleb received the starting nod against the Buccaneers, tying his career high with a 27-point performance en route to the 87-76 victory.
These storylines are just part of the bigger picture leading into the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Liberty's next chapter is about to begin.