BAKER — In a scene repeated thousands of times in the small gym, former Baker School basketball star Chad Donley gracefully fires up a jump shot and the ball gently tickles the bottom of the net as it goes through the hoop Friday afternoon.
Donley estimates that he spent close to 5,000 hours shooting baskets in Baker’s gym.
"I got here when I was in the fourth grade, but I didn't take basketball seriously until my seventh grade year," Donley said. "I'd say I spent at least about two hours a day since my seventh grade year in the gym shooting baskets."
Gator basketball coach Mike Martello joked about Donley's unsurpassed work ethic and desire to get better.
"I really made a mistake when I gave him my phone number because every weekend he would call me and ask, 'Coach, can we get in the gym? Coach, can we get in the gym?'" Martello said. "By the time he became a sophomore I was so thankful that he finally got his driver’s license so he could drive himself to get in the gym. His work ethic is what made him what he is."
Donley — a Division I basketball player at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. — just completed his first year at the school. Even on his break between the spring and summer semesters, Donley was working on getting better.
For the most part, Donley was happy with his first season with the Flames. The year’s highlight came when Liberty came out of nowhere to win the Big South tournament championship and secure a spot in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.
"It was a definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience coming from where we were to win our conference tournament and make it to the NCAA tournament — you can't duplicate that," Donley said.
Martello said he can't find another Baker player who has played in the Division I tournament.
"Division I basketball players are very few and far between," he said. "We've done a little research here going back 40 years. And Chad, as far as we can find, is the only basketball player from Baker to play in the NCAA tournament."
But playing some isn't enough for Donley, who attended Northwest Florida State College for two years before heading north. Donley red-shirted his first year with the Raiders and has two years’ eligibility left at Liberty.
Donley said there was always something to work on to get better at the Division I level. He continues to improve on his ball handling ability and physical training so he can create his own shot in a one-on-one situation.
"My coach said I'm a really good shooter so I didn't need to shoot much," Donley said.
Along with ball handling, Donley knows he needs to bulk up and add weight to his 170-pound frame.
Donley returns to Liberty on June 7 for the summer semester. He will work on staying ahead in the classroom and will log countless hours on the court to improve for the 2013-2014 Liberty basketball season.
Martello has no doubt that Donley will make the most of his talent and every opportunity he's given — just as he has so many times before.
"He showed what you can do with a great work ethic and not a whole lot of talent," Martello said. "I mean, he's a talented young man, but he really created a lot of his skills from hard work,
"He epitomizes what we hope kids in our basketball program aspire to do. And that's to make it to the highest level and achieve that kind of success."
Randy Dickson is the Crestview News Bulletin’s sports editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet him @BigRandle, or call 682-6524.