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LC seniors look for regional retribution

Mar. 6—ANDERSON — The mission for Jerramie Johnson and Devon Kelley began almost immediately following Liberty Christian's regional championship loss last March, a game that slipped away from the Lions in the final seconds.

In fact, Kelley said they were not even on the bus to return to Anderson from Frankfort that day when a decision was made.

"We already had our mind made up," he said. "We're not going to let next year go like this one did."

Although there have been many twists and turns for these seniors — particularly for Johnson — along the way, that mission is still alive as Liberty Christian travels to New Castle on Saturday afternoon for the Class 1A regional championship against Seton Catholic. The Lions are just three wins away from the goal — the program's first trip to the 1A state finals since the 2016 championship team.

Kelley — referred to by most as "D.K." — said part of the problem with last year's group is, while it was unselfish most of the time, it was not all of the time.

This year's team does not have that problem. Whether it is the seniors, which number just two compared to last year's group of seven, or the talented crop of freshmen and sophomores that have been so vital to this team's success, they share the ball without fail. That was an aspect of the game Kelley tried to instill in all of the players from the beginning of summer workouts.

"I had to be (vocal) because if I wasn't with such a young team, it would have been chaos," he said. "I had to make sure their head is in the right way and make sure they know the details, how things were supposed to go and how we do things during games."

"One thing I'll say about both of these guys is that they are unselfish," LC coach Norman Anderson said. "They've taken these young guys under their wing and are encouraging them. It helps when they are able to get along with people off the court, and that's D.K. and Jerramie, two of the most likable people in our community."

Johnson was unable to help his classmate and friend lead the young Lions over the summer because he had his hands full with his own issues.

He averaged about 4 points and 3 rebounds as one of the first players off Anderson's bench the previous season and was expected to be a large contributor this season.

But multiple leg fractures necessitated a surgery that sidelined Johnson for the summer and into preseason workouts, including relegating him to couch duty for a month. Unable to walk and unsure of his basketball future, Johnson — who has two rods in his shin — was frustrated.

"I had to work my way back and earn my trust back," he said. "I had to grind. It was more the mental side that I had to get past because I felt I wasn't good enough. Once I got past that part, everything was natural."

Eventually, he did return and scored five points in his season debut, Liberty's Dec. 7 loss at home to Arsenal Tech.

While easing back into the rotation, Johnson has been a solid source of production for a deep Liberty team that often plays 10 players.

"I so, so proud of that kid with all the obstacles that he's had to overcome and just to see where he is now," Anderson said. "One thing about Jerramie, he's such a loveable young man. He always kept a smile on his face, even if it was hurting.

"He came back a little earlier than expected. He was like, 'It's my senior year, coach.' I said, 'I know, but I can't sacrifice that now. You may want to play in college.' He was determined, he worked hard with his therapy and he was here every day with the guys. So he knew what was going on. It just took him a while to get back into the flow because he hadn't run or jumped in a while."

That depth was a key last week as the Lions faced substantial second-half deficits in Friday's semifinal against Tri-Central and Saturday's championship game against Cowan. In both instances, LC put together a devastating scoring run to erase the deficit, take the lead and seize control.

It was also a byproduct of that unselfish team philosophy the players refer to as "The Fist."

"The only thing I'm here to do is to complete the mission, and the mission is to get a ring on my finger," Kelley said as Johnson held up his own closed hand. "We're still The Fist."

"Stronger together," Johnson said in agreement.

Contact Rob Hunt at rob.hunt@heraldbulletin.com or 765-640-4886.