Stock in seniors paying off for Johnson, Liberty

Boys basketball: Under coach Steve Johnson, the Lions are shooting for their first county title since 1983.

January 19, 2003|By Rich Scherr | Rich Scherr,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For most coaches, going 5-41 over their first two seasons would be adequate reason to quit ... that is if they still had a job.

For Liberty coach Steve Johnson, however, extraordinary patience has proven to be the wisest career move of all.

With Carroll County lacking a dominant team for the first time in years, Johnson's senior-laden Lions are off to a 4-0 start in county play, and are eyeing their first county title since 1983 - before any of their players were even born.

"It was very tough to sit there and watch us lose," Johnson said. "I knew I was doing things right, and I knew it was just a matter of time before we turned the corner. It's been a long time since Liberty's been 4-0 [in the county], if they've been 4-0 at all. It's been great for us."

The Lions (5-7 overall) could go a long way in clearing up the murky county title picture this week with road games against North Carroll (Tuesday) and Westminster (Friday), the other top contenders. They've already beaten both, as well as defending county champion South Carroll.

It's the kind of start Johnson previously only could've dreamt about.

Johnson took the job in 2000 following an 11-year stint as an assistant at South Carroll. During that time, he coached the freshman and JV squads in a program that was always among the county's best.

Once at Liberty, though, the success quickly disappeared. At a steep disadvantage in both physical ability and skills, the Lions were routinely pummeled.

"The average loss for us was probably 30 points a night," recalled Johnson, whose team finished 3-20 in his rookie year as a head coach, then followed that last season with a 2-21 mark. All along, the 1979 South Carroll graduate stressed the fundamentals and clung to the words of his former coach and mentor, Jim Carnes, who taught him never to doubt himself.

The difference this year? A group of six seniors who, while perhaps not the most athletically gifted in the county, have worked tirelessly to get the most out of their games.

"I think last year, as soon as the season ended, the six seniors put it in our heads that we wanted to work all summer," said senior Ryan DeChant, who along with teammate Nick Williard played Amateur Athletic Union ball in Columbia during the offseason. "It's just a matter of playing year-round and practicing. If it's not on the street, playing with each other in backyards or driveways, then it's with AAU or in summer or spring leagues."

Last summer, the Lions proved they had the tools to win, surprising many by finishing second to North Carroll in their summer league in Eldersburg.

"I think that's when we learned that we could beat teams," DeChant said. "Not just beat them, but play well and beat them."

Now, led by DeChant, who leads the team at just over 13 points per game, and Williard and Jesse Baier, Liberty is on the right track. Even against teams it can't yet beat, such as Frederick power Thomas Johnson, it has closed the gap.

Last year, Liberty twice gave up 100 points to the Patriots, once losing by 60. In their first meeting this season, the Lions fell to the Patriots by just 12.

"We're getting closer to that level. It's just that we have a ways to go," Johnson said. "We're still learning how to win. The whole thing about this program over the last two years was changing the mind-set of the kids - changing them over from a loser's mentality and trying to get them to be winners."

Though four starters are set to graduate, the future appears to be bright for the Lions, whose JV and freshman teams are a combined 17-2.

DeChant said that the team feels it can go unbeaten in the county. Johnson isn't ready to make any guarantees, but feels the Lions will continue to surprise.

"I think people have overlooked us all season long so far," Johnson said. "This is a senior-oriented team, and these guys have put in a lot of time in the offseason. We knew we'd be in the top two, but I don't think anybody else gave us a chance."

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