Former Baker School and Northwest Florida State College basketball player Chad Donley is no different from most players.
As a boy honing his skills on driveways, playgrounds and musty gyms, he dreamed of bigger stages where he would display his game.
Playing for Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Donley stepped onto college basketball’s biggest stage on March 19, when the Flames played North Carolina A&T in the opening round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I basketball tournament at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
Liberty lost the game 73-72, but Donley purportedly is the first former Gator to play in the tournament.
"That's really humbling when I think of all the great basketball players that have gone before me at Baker," Donley said in a phone interview Monday. "I have to thank my coaches; coach (Mike) Martello (at Baker), coach (Steve) Forbes (at Northwest Florida State), (former Raider) coach (Bruce) Stewart (who died of cancer in May of 2011) — all of them put me in a place to succeed, so I owe a lot to all of them."
Donley said that, as a boy shooting baskets in the driveway, it would have been hard to imagine playing in the NCAA tournament. That the Flames, which started the season 0-8, could make tournament this year might have been an even bigger dream.
"As a kid when you’re always out there in the driveway (practicing), you are thinking about playing in big games, and it was really surreal at how things happened to make it there," he said. "Being a part of the team has been a blessing. It's crazy.
"When we started out 0-8, it was really hard for us. There were a lot of teams that would have given up hope and doubted themselves. But we really kept believing in ourselves the whole time, and it's crazy how God worked it out and how our hard work paid off in the end."
Despite having a 15-20 record, the Flames made the NCAA tournament by reeling off four straight wins in the Big South Conference tournament.
"Going into the season, I knew we had a lot of talent, and I knew we could win the Big South Conference and make it to the tournament," Donley said. "The biggest surprise, I guess, is the humility of the team. I knew we had a bunch of tough guys, but it was really nice to see how we kept our faith in each other and the program and we came to work every single day (when they were losing).
"Our coach said, 'Work as if it all depends on you and pray as if it all depends on God.' I think that's what we did.
It hasn't been easy going from being a player at Baker, a small rural school, to junior college and on to Division I Liberty, Donley said. In the process, he has learned there is no substitute for getting in the gym and working hard every day.
"It's been a heck of a transition, to be really honest," he said. "Going from Baker to junior college was a really big transition and going from junior college to Division I was another really big transition. It's been tough every day, but you have to do one thing at a time and get better every day.
"I've learned you can't take a day off because when you take a day off, somebody is going to be working to take your spot."
Randy Dickson is the Crestview News Bulletin’s sports editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet him @BigRandle, or call 682-6524.