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Western guard reunites with military father

Zera Lawrence's idea coming to fruition meant one long night in a St. Joseph hotel room.

Her husband, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Barry Lawrence, arrived Jan. 12 after nearly a year serving in Afghanistan, and she wanted a unique way to surprise their daughter, a Missouri Western basketball player.

The plan turned an ordinary practice into one of the biggest surprises in Lanicia Lawrence's life. Western coach Rob Edmisson immersed his point guard in discussion about the Griffons' upcoming game with Emporia State, allowing Staff Sgt. Lawrence to enter the gym undetected.

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"A camera crew was in there and coach told me to turn around, and I thought he was talking about (doing that) for them, but my dad was there," said Lanicia, who hadn't seen her father in more than 10 months.

"It was my instinct just to cry."

A teary-eyed Lanicia embraced her father — a military veteran of 22-plus years — toward the end of the Griffons' practice Friday, inciting emotions from many teammates and some coaches.

Ms. Lawrence's parents wanted a memorable reunion, so they traveled to St. Joseph from Alabama, arrived Thursday and stayed in a nearby hotel until time came to execute the long-awaited meeting.

"Her reaction meant a lot; it meant the world to me because I know she had no idea; her mind was strictly on basketball," said Staff Sgt. Lawrence, who hadn't seen Lanicia play since her last game at Hutchinson Community College (Kan.) last year but donned a Western T-shirt upon arrival. "It was just like unreal. I knew there would be a hug and a kiss on her forehead like I always do. I just didn't think she would cry that much.

"I tried to refrain from crying, but I knew there was gonna be some hugging."

Accustomed to bidding goodbye to a father who's served multiple tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea, Lanicia didn't know when her father was set to return, nor was she aware it was his last overseas deployment.

Staff Sgt. Lawrence, currently stationed in Kentucky, included that as part of his January cameo. He hopes to retire from the army this fall, meaning he could have free reign as to following Lanicia's career next season at Western.

But during his near-year-long stay in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Lawrence could only keep up with his daughter's first months at Western from text messages and sparse phone calls. Those brief conversations mostly revolved around Lanicia's life, since she didn't want to hear much about the danger her father could be encountering.

"I was pretty worried, honestly, but I just prayed about it," said Lanicia, who's averaging 9.2 points and 28 minutes per game as the Griffons' starting point guard. "I didn't try to think about it too much. He's been gone for a long time; it's kind of natural for me to block it out.

"I'd always ask how he was doing down there. He didn't get into too much detail. I didn't want to know very much, though."

Despite the vast time-zone difference and little opportunity, however, Staff Sgt. Lawrence wanted to speak with Mr. Edmisson before his daughter became part of the coach's first recruiting class at Western last summer.

Before playing on Hutchinson's national junior college runner-up team, Ms. Lawrence played high school basketball at Waynesville (Mo.) while her father was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in south-central Missouri.

"Like I do all dads, I just let them know that I'll take care of your daughter while she's here; you're not gonna have to worry," Mr. Edmisson said. "Especially in his situation, his mind has to be where it needs to be when you're over on active duty."

Staff Sgt. Lawrence was in attendance for 12-4 Western's 62-55 loss in Emporia, Kan., on Sunday, and the prospect of his presence at future contests could spark Ms. Lawrence.

But those visits being possible at all outweigh any on-court contributions.

"It' s just one of those moments that makes you realize that all the anxiety of winning and losing games and getting hung up on how well your kids are playing and being disappointed that we're not shooting, well, it don't matter," Mr. Edmisson said.
 

Sam Robinson can be reached at sam.robinson@newspressnow.com.

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