Ready for tipoff

Layer’s annual training camp helps squad build conditioning

“You have to go through something to be something.”

Those words, spoken by Head Coach Dale Layer, are the heart of Liberty men’s basketball’s annual “boot camp” week.

It is a tradition that marks the start of preseason each year: seven days of 5:55 — not to be confused with 6 — a.m. strength and conditioning sessions designed to toughen the players mentally as much as physically.

“It’s a lot of running,” senior forward and boot camp veteran Tomasz Gielo said. “But what gets you tired is all the stuff that we do before the running part.”

“All the stuff” includes individual sessions designed to strengthen players’ particular weaknesses, increase overall fitness and improve mental toughness.

There are conditioning stations for traditional workout moves like jumps, lunges and weight work. Much of the work comes in the form of basketball drills that do not involve the ball itself, such as lane slides, rim touches and defensive moves. Teamwork-related elements are included throughout to build unity. After each morning session, players go about their day and regroup in the evening for standard practice.

According to Layer, the mastermind behind the Flames boot camp, the concept is hardly a new one in the college basketball world. It originated with and was made popular by Bill Self at the University of Kansas and was passed down and around coaching staffs from there. Buzz Williams, head coach at Virginia Tech University, introduced Layer to the idea during their time together at Marquette University.

“It certainly was new to Liberty when I came as a head coach,” Layer said. “It combines a lot of different things — strategy, teamwork, communication, a lot of running — and things they’ve got to bind together to accomplish. These guys have embraced it, and it’s kind of part of our culture now.”

Gielo agreed, not denying the difficulty of the institution, but buying into its many benefits.

“It’s been four years, and each year it’s been different with little tweaks here and there,” Gielo said. “And it’s a lot of work and a lot of chaos, but that’s the time when the team is forged.”

That forgery has perhaps never been more crucial to a Flames basketball club than it is to this 2014-15 squad. Of the 14-man roster, a remarkable 10 are first-year players.

“There are a lot of new guys this year — guys who are learning new roles,” Gielo said. “Even since the first day of boot camp, you can tell a lot of things have improved. I think it’s a good way for (the new players) to get to know what we’re about here at Liberty, what our team culture is about, and I just hope they keep working hard like they have been.”

Redshirt senior James Johnson, a transfer forward out of San Diego, California, is one of the 10 learning the team, its culture and his role within it in his first season with the Flames.

“My first (session), I was a little bit nervous coming in, because I’d heard some horror stories from guys in the past,” Johnson said. “But we have a really good group of guys here — real strong-willed — so combined, I knew that we could do anything as long as we work together. I’ve found the more you encourage your teammates, the easier it goes. … We lean on each other when we’re tired and stick together when we’re struggling.”

In other words, precisely Layer’s goal.

“They’ve had to learn to talk,” Layer said. “They’ve had to learn to listen. They’ve had to learn to strategize on the fly and they’ve had to learn to do all that together while they’re tired or sleep-deprived. Those are things I think will translate to what they may experience during the season.”

And the season will be here before the Flames know it, with their Nov. 14 season opener versus Randolph College just weeks away. With that in mind, they focus on building physical fitness and team identity in boot camp 2014 and beyond, willing to go through the struggle to become something greater in the process.

RUSH is a sports reporter.

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