Justin Daniels was born to be a leader.
With a mother who is a captain at the Manning Police Department, he learned at an early age the importance of stepping up.
"Me being a leader, I get that from her," Justin said of his mom, Sonia King-Daniels. "I looked at her since I was young, and she put it into me."
Of course, being the son of a well-known police officer in town meant Justin always had to be on the up and up, too.
"My expectations have been high since I was young," he said. "If I mess up in school or somewhere else, I'd have my momma looking bad, and I can't have my momma looking bad."
It only makes sense that once he got to high school, he'd slide right into a role with high expectations of leadership. That happened across the board.
Justin couldn't just settle for one sport; he plays three. In football, he's the quarterback, charged with leading the offense and being another coach on the field.
In basketball, he stepped in as a freshman and instantly made an impact on a team that made a run to the lower state championship game the year before.
Then add in track and field, where his skills in football and basketball translate perfectly as a sprinter and jumper.
"I want to be constantly doing something," Justin said.
In football, he was thrust into action early. He started the season on the JV team, but an injury to Corey Graham thrust the young speedster into the varsity lineup.
"The first game, I was nervous, I ain't even gonna cap. I was scared," Justin said. "After that first game or two, the nerves went away and we just rocked with it, too."
Justin stepped in and sparked a winning streak that saw the Monarchs win their region before a first-round exit in the playoffs. After football season ended, he quickly transitioned to basketball.
During Justin's eighth-grade year, Manning had one of its best basketball seasons ever. The Monarchs won their region and made a run to the lower state championship game. Expectations remained high as Justin made the leap to varsity and he was thrust into a large role immediately.
Graham wasn't just the Monarch's starting quarterback as Justin entered high school, he was also their best returning basketball player. With Graham out of the picture with a torn ACL, Justin had to fill his shoes again.
"I wasn't expecting it, but I realized after he got hurt, I knew it was coming," he said of being thrust into the spotlight early in his varsity basketball career.
Justin responded admirably, averaging just under 10 points per game as the Monarchs finished 17-10 and earned a spot in the playoffs. Manning won two playoff games before being narrowly beaten by Cheraw, the same team that knocked them out of the football playoffs.
After an excellent freshman season, the 2020-21 school year was rough for Justin and the Monarchs. On the football field, Manning was winless. That was a difficult load for Justin to shoulder as the quarterback, the face of the team.
"I can't show the team that I'm down because I'm the quarterback so if I show the team that I'm down, they're going to be down too. We can't have the whole team down," Justin said. "I have to be the one that has to have my pride up even when we're losing.
"That's a lot of pressure. With criticism and all of that, it's a lot of pressure."
Football has been a struggle at Manning for the last two seasons. The Monarchs went 1-8 this fall but Justin is still committed to helping Manning succeed on the football field.
"Even when you lose, you have to stay focused," Justin said. You can't let your head go all over the place, you have to stay focused and keep rocking with your team."
Of course, 2020 was a challenge for the world as COVID-19 threw everything into a loop. While the Monarchs made it through football season relatively unscathed, the virus wouldn't let basketball season run as smoothly.
"We couldn't get in the gym. It was a struggle," Justin said. "We were getting better, but we couldn't get where we wanted to be with COVID being there."
Manning played just 10 games last season as COVID-19 allowed the Monarchs to play just one game before Jan. 20. Even with Graham back in the fold, Manning couldn't find a rhythm, finishing 2-8 overall and missing the playoffs entirely. That season put a chip on Justin's shoulder.
"When I found out we weren't going to the playoffs, I knew for a fact we were going this year," Justin said. "I was making sure we'd go this year."
TRYING TO GET NOTICED
That wasn't the only basketball Justin played, of course. After track season, Justin spent his summer playing AAU ball, as he has since he was in seventh grade. There is no offseason for Justin, as the summer provides another season to improve and get recruited.
"Summer is busy. I have football practice throughout the whole week and I've got to leave on time to go play AAU. It's busy," Justin said. "I think AAU is a different grind. With AAU you get looked at more, especially coming out of Manning, South Carolina. The looks come from when you go out and play AAU."
Justin has hopes of extending his career past his time at Manning and he's not overly particular about what sport allows him to do that. Coming from Manning, that's not easy, even if you're extremely talented.
"Coming from Manning, there are a lot of athletes that should've been DI or professionals that just didn't get the looks," Justin said. "It's not easy coming out of Clarendon County but I feel like I have the right people around me to help me get to the next level."
While it's not easy, getting recognized in Clarendon County is becoming less difficult. Clarendon Hall star Kylic Horton is heading to play football at South Carolina and Justin's former teammate, Aaron Smith, is playing football at South Carolina State. Of course, in the tri-county area, Ja Morant proved that stars can come from anywhere.
"It feels good knowing that it's possible to make it to the next stage. That's motivation," Justin said of Morant. "You wouldn't think someone would go from Manning or Sumter to the next level, but he showed everybody that it's possible."
MULTIPLE SPORTS BUILDING TOGETHER
Justin said he thinks he benefits from playing multiple sports.
"Really, all my sports help me with one sport," Justin said. "Football helps me with basketball, basketball helps me with track."
Constantly playing sports at Manning also gives Justin a great chance to build chemistry with his teammates, an important trait for a leader of any team.
"We have chemistry year-round with each other. When I have teammates coming back, we already have chemistry built up, so we're good," Justin said. "You've got to be on the same page. Being on the same page, everything is going to go right. Our home page started during football season. Even though we were losing, we were on the same page, then it transformed into basketball."
CONNECTING THE PIECES
While Justin and the football team struggled this fall, the basketball team is off to a great start. The Monarchs currently sit at 10-4 and are riding high after beating Scott's Branch, their Clarendon County rival that is ranked as the top team in 1A, on Saturday. Manning broke into the top 10 of the 3A South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association poll last week. Justin saw first-hand what it takes for a team to succeed at Manning and he wants to go beyond what the Monarchs did in 2019.
"We've got to get past that," he said of Manning's run in 2019. "I know they won the region and that's good. We've got to go win region then go win state."
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