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Hard Work Pays Off

December 27, 2009  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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Johnny Stephene is currently averaging 2.7 points per game for the Flames heading into Tuesday's contest with UCF.

Johnny Stephene is currently averaging 2.7 points per game for the Flames heading into Tuesday's contest with UCF.

This feature article appeared in the second edition of Flames Illustrated for the 2009-10 basketball season. Stephene has appeared in 10 games for the Flames, averaging 2.7 ppg.

As a mischievous fifth-grader, Johnny Stephene got his first taste of basketball thanks to an after-school detention.

The offense? Making a joke while the teacher was giving a lesson.

While walking home late that afternoon, he passed some outdoor basketball courts. In awe, the youngster watched as groups of kids played pick-up games until dark.

He came back the next day. And the next.

Noticing how late her son was coming home, Stephene's mother decided he couldn't go watch anymore. Instead, Stephene got a basketball of his own, and started dribbling every day in front of his house. After two months, his mother let him go back to the courts after school. This time though, he was ready to play.

"After all of that practice on my own, I could play right there with them," Stephene remembers. "People started noticing, and said I could be really good."

After playing pick-up games for awhile, Stephene joined a city league. In the beginning, he played with kids his age, but as he developed, he was able to play two age groups up. He became hooked on the game, and had high expectations for himself.

After an all-star prep career at Boynton Beach High School, Stephene was ready to make a run at the college level. He looked at several schools, but ultimately chose Liberty because of the atmosphere. "When I took the visit, the environment was positive, and very much away from things I didn't need in my life," he explained.

Stephene was recruited by current head coach Dale Layer, and played under Ritchie McKay for two seasons before Layer returned this season to take over the head coaching role. Stephene says he was happy about Layer's return.

"What he believes in is all about working hard," Stephene said. "He believes in work over talent. Our team lost a lot of talent from last year, but we also play much harder than last year. He really pushes us."

Stephene's story is different than most, as he comes from a big family and is the only athlete among eight siblings. He is also the first in his family to go to college. While that is a special feat, he says it poses an added challenge.

"A lot of people on our team have family members in college, or went to college," he said. "I'm the only person when it comes to my family, so no one can really relate to me.
"But that also turns into a motivator, too."

Stephene concluded his first competitive season as a redshirt freshman last year. The guard played in 35 games with three starts, averaging 3.7 points per game. He scored a career-high 15 points on Dec. 19, 2008, in a 73-70 loss to St. Louis on the road. He also counts wins over George Mason and Virginia as top highlights from last season.

"I play because I just like competing and I like the preparation," he said. "You get to see what comes of hard work. And I like entertaining people, too."

Stephene faced a minor setback prior to this season, when he had to have knee surgery in September. Right now, he's focused on the healing process and moving forward as a more prominent scorer.

"Last year, I was more of a passive person," he said. "This year, I have a different role. I have to create for others, but I have to put some points on the board, too, because we lost a lot of scorers."

The night before a game, Stephene has started a ritual of watching online videos of top current and former collegiate basketball guards, such as Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Jeff Teague. He says watching the skills of those talented players helps get him motivated, but for the most part, he motivates himself. "I motivate myself, but I can easily become unmotivated," he admits. "But I've learned from that. I think I inspire myself, knowing no one in my family has ever played basketball, or any other sport, or gone to college."

Layer has been impressed with the work ethic Stephene brings to the team, and expects him to be a force on this year's squad.

"Johnny has trimmed down and is in much better shape, because he worked extremely hard in the off-season," Layer said. "He had an up-and-down year as a redshirt freshman, but that's normal. We're expecting him to build upon that and give us great scoring, leadership and toughness, and capitalize on all the hard work he did in the off-season."

Stephene says defense and execution will be key for the Flames to have a successful season, and this year's group is more tough-minded and less flashy than last year. Also, he says this year's team will get straight to the point.

Stephene, who says he credits himself with being a good listener, is majoring in exercise science at Liberty. He hopes to be a physical therapist one day, and help people plagued by injury get back up and running.

"I think I can make people laugh and I can help people with my personality," he said. "Those people feel down and I just want to help them get back to normal.

"I feel like a lot of people don't know that I really understand other people's problems. People feel like they can talk to me."

When asked how his teammates would describe him, a grin crosses his face.

"Funny, athletic and competitive," he answers.

So something good came out of that fifth-grade detention, as it ultimately put Johnny Stephene on the basketball court, and eventually led him to Liberty.

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Jennifer Shelton is an athletics communications graduate assistant for Liberty University.