WITH TOUTED FRESHMEN ON BOARD, SMART PREACHES PATIENCE

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Shaka Smart is set to open his sixth season as VCU coach.

Shaka Smart is set to open his sixth season as VCU coach.

RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart understands the hype around his freshman class. He did recruit Justin Tillman, Jonathan Williams, Michael Gilmore and Terry Larrier, after all. But he’s also seen enough freshmen struggle to know that caution is often the best path.

“We have four freshmen who have done a really nice job since they got here in June,” Smart said Wednesday. “Right now they’re going through the typical freshman fall ups and downs and transitioning to getting physically ready for real college practice and the competition that comes with that every day.”

Smart will get a closer look at his freshman class’ transition soon. The Rams kick off full team practices Friday, six weeks prior to their season-opener on Nov. 14 against Tennessee in Annapolis.

No VCU recruiting class has garnered as much attention as this far-reaching quartet, which Smart and his staff tapped from Detroit (Tillman), New York (Larrier), Jacksonville (Gilmore) and Richmond (Williams). ESPN rated the class No. 14 in the country last year. Larrier, Gilmore and Tillman were all ranked in ESPN’s Top 100 players.

Larrier has received the bulk of the preseason hype. A consensus four-star and top-50 recruit, Larrier’s choice of VCU over UConn was seen by many as a coup for the Rams. A 6-foot-8 guard, Larrier possesses an advanced offensive game, as well as the length Smart covets in his high-energy, full court press.

“He’s going to help us a lot this year,” Smart said. “I think he’s going to have a big role. I would say similar to a Treveon Graham, a Melvin Johnson did as freshmen. Maybe a little bit more if he can put it together. It’s always interesting to see how freshmen are able to deal with everything that goes into being a freshman, and he’s just getting started with that.”

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WHAT A KICK IN THE HEAD

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Welcome to our first installment of what will a reoccurring series (until I am mortally wounded in the process), called, “Can CK Play?” The idea, other then to shed light on the woeful current state of my athletic abilities, is to bring you a little closer to VCU’s student-athletes and their unique skill sets. I’m not sure I earned an MLS tryout from this.

FORMER RAM SPINS ‘WHEEL’ TO BIG PAYDAY

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Former VCU track star Verniece (Johnson) Love won nearly $71,000 on 'Wheel of Fortune' in July.

Former VCU track star Verniece (Johnson) Love won nearly $71,000 on ‘Wheel of Fortune’ in July.

RICHMOND, Va. – Over the years, few things were as predictable in Deloris Johnson’s household as her whereabouts from 7-8 p.m., Monday through Friday. Every weeknight, she could be counted on to tune in to “Wheel of Fortune”, the iconic, long-running syndicated game show. It’s been that way for years.

But Monday’s episode was like no other for the Louisa County resident. That’s because on Monday night, she watched her granddaughter, former VCU track star Verniece (Johnson) Love, win nearly $71,000 on the show.

Love, who was raised by Johnson, says she’d watch “Wheel” nearly every night with her grandmother and used to talk about spinning the wheel when she grew up.

“She was so excited,” Love said of her grandmother. “I talked to her again this morning. She kept saying how proud she was of me and how pretty I looked on TV. She’s been talking about it nonstop. I think she called everybody in Louisa County.”

Johnson won’t be the only one sharing the story now. For the first time, Love is able to talk about the big win on “Wheel.” Love actually filmed her episode on July 11 at the show’s studios in Culver City, California, but was required to sign a confidentiality agreement. Now, it’s all anyone wants to talk about.

“Since last night, my phone has been blowing up,” said Love, who lives in Richmond with her husband, Darryl, and their two children. “I had people who didn’t believe I was going to be on the show, and now my phone and my Facebook have been going bananas.”

Love attended VCU from 2005-09 and was a standout on the track and field team. She still owns the program’s indoor and outdoor long jump records. She graduated in 2009 with a degree in marketing, and also minored in African American studies and economics. She met her husband, who studied finance, at VCU. Today, she is a certification officer with the Virginia Department of Small Business and Supplier Diversity.

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RAM REFUSED TO ‘TAKE A KNEE’ ON SOCCER CAREER

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VCU senior Mario Herrera Meraz has endured four knee surgeries to continue his soccer career.

VCU senior Mario Herrera Meraz has endured four knee surgeries to continue his soccer career.

RICHMOND, Va. – The network of scars on Mario Herrera Meraz’s left knee weave a tapestry of pain and doubt, and bear evidence of a gauntlet of trials. He muses as he leads me on a tour through the tangled mess of scar tissue.

Herrera Meraz’s kneecap is surrounded by skin marked by surgeon’s knives. There are four large scars roughly the size of postage stamps that form a perimeter around the knee, as well as several small dot marks, evidence of the torn meniscus he suffered when he was 16 that kicked off a “Groundhog’s Day”-like series of injuries that threatened his soccer career. The final scalpel stroke, a narrow, four-inch highway down the center of the knee, is from his most recent brush with injury. He had a screw inserted the last time, and with direct contact, the area can go numb for a few moments.

From 2006-2012, the VCU senior endured four major surgeries on the knee, three to repair a torn ACL. It would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. If not for a cacophony of shredded soft tissue, it’s entirely possible Herrera Meraz would be playing professionally by now, as well as a member of Mexico’s national team.

Despite adversity, Herrera Meraz breezes into the room unfailingly polite and buoyant. Eight years since his first visit to the operating room, the wiry, 5-foot-8 midfielder can still find a smile while recalling a vicious cycle of success, injury, disbelief, recovery and self-doubt.

His torn ACL in the 2012 Atlantic 10 Championship Match and the collective toll of four surgeries, hung like a black cloud over his 2013 season. His confidence shattered, Herrera Meraz was a shadow of himself as he wandered through the season like a man in the wilderness.

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TOP-SHELF FISHER, REDDIC IN ITALY

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A couple of weekend videos worthy of sharing. The first comes from VCU Men’s Soccer’s win over Northeastern on Friday, in which Devon Fisher buries a perfectly placed shot from 35 yards out. This goal is pretty awesome.

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Today’s second video, and congrats to those Internet sleuths monitoring Italian basketball airspace, is Juvonte Reddic’s introductory presser with Victoria Libertas. Most of this 38 minute video is in Italian, but it does include Reddic, who presumably does not speak Italian, responding to questions in English.

NEW LOGO IS A GO

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The new VCU logo has been chiseled into center court at the Siegel Center by the nocturnal leprechauns we keep around just for these types of jobs. Out with the old, in with the new. Meanwhile, the new corner suites should be nearing completion. Next up is the center-hung scoreboard.

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EVERYBODY IN THE POOL, SUMMER’S GONE

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Summer’s gone. I’m not concerned with the technical definition of the season. We’ve all been conditioned to mentally terminate the summer once school resumes. I still do that today because when fall sports kick back online every August, it’s go time in the office. That day is today. We got a little preview last week with women’s soccer’s early start at Virginia Tech and Marshall, but Friday and Saturday, field hockey, volleyball and men’s soccer will also begin their 2014 campaigns.

Our first order of business today is to present our next fall sports preview, field hockey. Although this sport willfully chooses to water artificial grass, we still love them. The Rams were 10-10 a year ago under former player and first-year Coach Laura Baker. This year’s squad is channeling its inner Queen Latifah, with more than a little conversation given to unity.

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VCU Volleyball is in Fort Collins, Colorado this weekend, where all they’ll do is play a road match against the No. 18 team in the country (Colorado State), then two other teams that are receiving votes (Marquette and UC Santa Barbara). This year’s roster features more freshmen (8) than upperclassmen combined (7), so the kids will get an idea about the top end of Division I volleyball pretty quickly. Second-year Coach Jody Rogers, who punts excuses into the rafters for fun, doesn’t sound concerned.

“Age is just a number, and I always tell them that. I don’t want to have an excuse, everybody else sees a young team, I don’t care. They’re ready. I want them to be ready.”

The Rams were 26-8 last year in Rogers’ first season.

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TROPHY CHASING TAKES ON GREATER IMPORTANCE FOR VCU SOCCER IN ’14

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In four seasons under the guidance of Coach Dave Giffard, the VCU Men’s Soccer program has transformed from an also-ran into a juggernaut. For all the progress made, there are a couple of levels of success that have been elusive. Following an 11-8-2 mark in 2013, the Rams aim to take the next step as a program.

THE RISE OF SHAKAVISION: VCU BASKETBALL SCHEDULE RELEASED

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tumblr_mt9eusr6Tn1ryw6edo1_500Shaka Smart’s “Havoc” is must-see TV. That’s what the networks are saying, it seems.

The full VCU Men’s Basketball schedule was released Wednesday. We’ve known the non-conference slate for weeks and the home/away A-10 match-ups for months, so this was really about filling dates and setting DVRs.

In case you were stuck in a mid-afternoon meeting, here it is:

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Really, today’s news is really all about what we didn’t know before, television. Seventeen of VCU’s 18 Atlantic 10 Conference games will be nationally televised, seven by ESPN networks, including four in a row at one stretch. As of today, and there’s still time for the network to add games, VCU will appear on an ESPN network – not including ESPN3 – 11 times. I’m not even go to bother to look this up, but I’m going to say with a degree of certainty, that’s a program record. In all, 23 of VCU’s 31 regular season games are currently scheduled on a national carrier (ESPN2/U: 11, CBS Sports: 9, NBC Sports: 2). That surpasses the program mark of 21 national broadcasts, set last year.

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COME TOGETHER; RAMS AIM TO CHALLENGE A-10 AGAIN WITH OLD AND NEW

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Year One of Jody Rogers’ tenure as VCU Volleyball coach was wildly successful, as the Rams finished 26-8 and reached the Atlantic 10 Conference title match. But that’s not to say the Rams are satisfied. VCU is still chasing its first conference crown and NCAA bid since 2005, and this year, the Rams will do it behind five returning starters and eight freshmen.

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