By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — Liberty Christian was about four minutes away from its first boys basketball regional championship last March.
Then perennial powerhouse Lafayette Central Catholic rallied late in the fourth quarter, and the Lions' magical season ended with a 77-68 loss at Frankfort's Case Arena.
Gone. But not forgotten.
"Everybody on the team has a bracelet with the score on it as a daily reminder," Liberty Christian coach Jason Chappell said. "We know what we have to do. We kind of vowed we didn't want that to happen again."
The Lions lost four significant contributors — Terrence Campbell, Thatcher Rouse, Remington Emery and Austin Castor — from last year's 20-6 team. But the core of a squad that averaged 70.1 points per game returns.
And people around the state have taken notice.
Liberty Christian has reached the regional final in each of the past two seasons and is ranked No. 8 in Class 1A in The Associated Press' preseason poll. The Lions opened at No. 10 a year ago, and the novelty already has worn off a bit.
"We've been able to beat teams that were ranked pretty high," Chappell said. "And some teams that weren't ranked very high have beaten us. You've gotta play the game."
That's something junior point guard Chris Nunn does extremely well.
The 5-foot-10 speedster led the Lions with 14.9 points and 4.1 assists per game. His phone — and Chappell's — has been ringing off the hook with colleges interested in his future services.
But his focus remains very much on the present.
Nunn attended a leadership camp this summer and, according to Chappell, came back as a different kid. He's always trended toward the quiet side, but now he's not afraid to speak up when he has a message he feels his teammates need to hear.
And the Lions have responded.
Chappell said there's been marked improvement across the board during preseason practice because of the work the players put in during the offseason. A big focus was put on forgetting about individual glory and sacrificing for the betterment of the team.
That's an easier concept to sell when it's being exhibited daily by the best player.
"He loves his teammates," Chappell said of Nunn. "They hang out together. They're friends off the court. He's just a blessing to have."
And he's not alone.
Preston Quinn, who averaged 13.8 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds last year, leads an intriguing senior quartet. Joining Quinn are Ben Bowen — who sank 42.9 percent of his 3-point attempts a year ago — versatile DeShon Gibbs and 6-foot-5 Austin Richwine, who was limited by injury to 14 games last year.
Also back are junior Quincey Hyatt, sophomore Franklin Nunn, junior Isaiah Tufts and junior Da'Marcus Watkins.
Hyatt caught his coach's eye during a recent scrimmage against University, a fellow regional finalist from a year ago. Despite struggling with his shot, Hyatt finished with 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals.
It was the embodiment of the coach's pleas to forget about mistakes and keep focused on what a player can do next to help the team.
"The hard part each season is when you get the kids and you have to put the pieces together," Chappell said. "Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don't. But it might not be the best five players who get onto the floor. It'll be the five best who play together."
That puzzle will include a few new pieces. Vincent Phillips, a 6-foot-4 post player, transferred back to Liberty Christian from Pendleton Heights. Freshman Ronnie Williams also joins the program after playing last year at Highland Middle School.
No matter how the pieces ultimately fit together, the goals remain the same. That means finishing what the Lions have been building the past few seasons and playing for a state championship at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"Our biggest goal is to grow these kids into becoming better young men," Chappell said. "If you can do that, it will be a lot easier to accomplish the other goals. This is a really good set of kids, and I want to see them go as far as they can go.
"It should be a fun season."
Hoops Preview This is the eighth story in an 11-part series previewing the boys basketball season. Previous installments in the series are available at theheraldbulletin.com.