Dawson undaunted

The redshirt-sophomore transfer from Marquette has given life to the Flames

“I’m not going to let you leave … I want you to be on my team and I want you to help lead this team. I’m not going to let you leave.”

After a coaching change brought former University of Virginia (UVA) Cavaliers men’s basketball associate head coach Ritchie McKay back to Lynchburg, Virginia, these were the words he spoke to redshirt sophomore guard John Dawson. McKay’s message was simple. And it was received.

Speed — John Dawson blows past a High Point defender during the victory. Michela Diddle

“That was the one thing,” Dawson said. “(McKay) wants me here.”

McKay took over the basketball team in April of 2015. His success at UVA made him a highly sought after coach. And just as there are with most coaching changes, there were drastic alterations to the Flames, primarily regarding their roster.

Five players transferred, one was suspended indefinitely and two graduated. Almost half of last season’s roster was gone. However one of the few who remained was Dawson.

The Clovis, New Mexico native was a three-star guard according to 247sports.com. He elected to play his college ball at Marquette, but his time there was short-lived.

“(Marquette’s) program was growing in a good direction and I felt like I wasn’t a part of it,” Dawson said. “I just decided if I wasn’t going to contribute or be a contribution to the team, then I’ll try and go somewhere where I can be. Liberty’s the place that called my name.”

Less than a week after Dawson made the decision to leave Marquette, the call from Liberty came.

Former Flames assistant coach Vance Walden contacted Dawson. He had already spoke with Dawson’s father and wanted to go to his home for a visit. Additionally he hoped to bring the guard to Liberty. Needless to say, it worked.

“It was crazy because (Walden) was a total stranger but … it felt like he was a lost uncle that’s been there this whole time,” Dawson said. “It was (Walden) who really helped me come (to Liberty).”

After the visit, Dawson was sold. On Jan. 15, 2015, the Flames introduced Dawson as the newest addition to the program.

The transition from schools was admittedly a difficult one according to Dawson. Marquette, a catholic institution, had different rules and restrictions than Liberty, an evangelical Christian institution. However, the difficulties of the transition paled in comparison to what was in store for Dawson.

The former Marquette University guard was prohibited from playing in his first year due to NCAA transfer regulations. His time off the court was one of the most difficult things he experienced.

“Oh (not playing) was hard. That was the hardest thing I had to do,” Dawson said. “When you grow up with basketball all the time, 24/7, and you only get to do it in practice and don’t get to enjoy the games and you don’t get to go out and fight with your brothers, it’s hard.”

During the two semester span away from the court, Dawson could be seen at every game in street clothes, applauding, cheering and coaching his teammates, or as he prefers to call them “brothers.”

“I want to see my guys strive to be the best,” Dawson said. “I want to see my guys be the best. I want to see (my teammates) do everything they can and accomplish everything they can. And when I know they are not playing to the best of their potential, I try to get them there. Being a leader and an older figure on this team, that’s my job.”

Then, Dec. 17 came. This was the day he anxiously awaited since transferring. It was time to lace up the Nike kicks and step on the court for the first time since 2014. Dawson received the starting nod against the Princeton Tigers. He scored 15 points and dished out four assists in the loss against the Tigers, a stat line he has consistently posted since his debut.

While Dec. 17 is officially the day he debuted, Jan. 6 is officially the day he arrived.

In a road game matchup against in-conference rivals, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, the Flames were down by two with less than 20 seconds remaining. In only his sixth game wearing red, white and blue, the ball was in Dawson’s hands. After sizing up his defender with a couple of cross-over dribbles, he pulled up and nailed the go-ahead basket for the Flames, giving them the 62-61 victory over Coastal.

In the very next game, the 6-foot-2-inch guard recorded his first double-double for the Flames with 14 points and 10 rebounds in a victory against the Campbell Camels. Four games later, he validated the claim that his clutch shot against the Chanticleers was no fluke.

The Flames found themselves in a similar scenario against the High Point Panthers as Liberty had both possession and an opportunity to win. With ball in hand, Dawson authoritatively attacked the basket and sank the game winning shot just before time expired. Having only played in seven conference games, Dawson has hit game-winning shots in two of them, which matches the amount of conference games the Flames won during all of last season.

Liberty currently sits at 6-15 on the season, 4-5 in Big South play. But since the Flames new-comer first threw on the Liberty jersey, the Flames are 4-3 against conference opponents.

In fact, when he first put on the No. 22 jersey, he had intentions to switch as soon as he could to his old number, the No. 2 jersey, which was already taken by sophomore forward A.C. Reid. “22” initially had no meaning to Dawson. But it soon became more than just a number. It became a tribute.

J.D. Isler, Dawson’s high school basketball coach, died in a tragic car accident within a week of Dawson’s arrival. Isler wore No. 22 in high school, according to Dawson.

“I had all the intentions of switching my number,” Dawson said. “But after (Isler died) I decided I will keep it. It is a tribute to him and his family.”

It is no secret Dawson is the leader of this team. When the game goes down to the wire, the ball is in his hands. When the five on the court for the Flames get a little unsettled, McKay counts on him to calm things down.

“(Dawson) really exudes the confidence that our team needs,” McKay said. “I love his competitive desire … we can jump on his back for a minute or two and he’ll carry us. He’s strong enough.”


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