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Stafford: Hornets discover a leader in Long

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By Jeremy Stafford - jstafford@nvdaily.com

Even as a senior at Handley, Shenandoah forward Justin Long never quite possessed the kind of responsibility he's had over the past two months.

When former Shenandoah basketball coach Rob Harris resigned in February, SU Athletic Director Wayne Edwards put Long, now a junior, in charge of the team while the school searched for a new head coach.

Edwards said Long demonstrated the strong character necessary to lead the Hornets for two coach-less months. Edwards told the Hornets to respect Long as a leader, and to comply with Long's directions.

"He's never really had a leadership opportunity before, and I wasn't sure how he was going to handle it," Edwards said of Long. "I can tell you: He handled it tremendously well.

"He organized all the meetings, he got the players going ... with weight training and academics -- and with regard to the search, he was in charge."

Long made sure his teammates, when they met with each of the final four coaching candidates, were present and presentable and organized.

Then Long acted as the intermediary between the basketball team and the committee of administrators -- Edwards, assistant football coach Joe Jacoby and women's basketball coach Michelle Guyant-Holloway, to name a few -- whose primary task was to find a suitable basketball coach.

Long's obligations on the court this past season paled in comparison to his recent off-the-court duties.

In the Hornets' least-productive season in years, Long battled with a host of other forwards for time in the post. He played in all 25 games -- only four of which the Hornets won -- and started seven.

He scored 23 points and grabbed 85 rebounds (3.4 rpg).

Because seniors Kevin Kline and Mitch Dudley are graduating this spring, Long returns as Shenandoah's most prolific rebounder.

Again: Long wasn't quite used to being in the spotlight at Shenandoah. And yet when he was cast into it, he thrived in it.

"He came into the search committee after the last interview tremendously well-organized, with his notes out on each coach," Edwards said. "He went through [the four candidates] one-by-one and told us what the players felt.

"He talked with us in such an articulate way about their strengths and weaknesses as they perceived them."

The basketball team ranked the four candidates, and Long presented the rankings to the search committee. Long knew the team's vote wouldn't ultimately decide who would be named coach -- but he knew its opinion would be taken into account.

Long and the rest of the Hornets found out earlier this week that Rob Pryor was relinquishing his position as an U.S. Air Force Academy assistant basketball coach to become the head coach at Shenandoah.

"He seems like he's a real warm-hearted guy," Long said of Pryor. "He likes to sit down and talk to you one-on-one, and he sees the full spectrum.

"We have a lot of different characters on our team, and his ability to address us all differently is going to show and improve our development as a team."

Pryor brings quite a resume to Shenandoah: He spent five years as an assistant at the Air Force Academy and one year as an assistant at Siena College. He was an assistant and head coach at the Air Force Academy's Prep School.

Pryor graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1997, and was a contracting officer at Langley Air Force Base.

And don't think Pryor's military background is lost on the Hornets.

Long said Pryor expects the SU basketball team to keep at least a 3.0 GPA. He also expects the Hornets to play disciplined defensive basketball, with a hefty emphasis on rebounding -- the one statistic Long will have to add to next season.

"If you see us running up and down some hills at six in the morning, don't be surprised," Long laughed.

Despite his seemingly meager stats last year, Long will certainly be an integral -- perhaps the integral -- piece of next year's basketball team. Edwards said Long isn't at all the same person he was two months ago: He's now the key personality on a team that graduates five seniors. Being suddenly cast into a leading role during a team's most dire moments can have that effect on a player.

But it's precisely that kind of change Edwards hoped to see out of Long when he heaved so much responsibility on the forward.

"He's the type of young man that I would be proud to have as my son," Edwards said. "He does the right thing, he's a strong leader.

"Watch him next year in basketball -- he'll do well."

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