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Sports :: Players say coach Johnson is teaching them to succeed on and off the court
· 11:17am February 28th, 2013
One year ago today, Vinton-Shellsburg Basketball coach Joe Johnson was named the 2012 WaMaC West Basketball Coach of the Year, joining three players -- then-juniors Grant Sagan, Max Kearns and Max Griffith on the All-Conference First Team.
That celebration was tainted with disappointment, as the Vikings had lost two days earlier to Western Dubuque in the Sub-State final.
This year, while waiting to see which players and coaches their conference honors, the Vikings have more pressing on-court business to take care of: Preparing for the state tournament. Joe is now the coach of the top-ranked team in Class 3A, and the No. 1 seed in next week’s state tournament.
Both Coach Johnson -- Coach J, as the players call him -- and some of the senior leaders, shared some thoughts on their historic season after earning their trip to Des Moines Monday evening.
"We have a special team from the starters to the last couple of guys on the bench," says Coach J.
First trip to State
The Vikings have only gone to State once in the school's history, in 1996. So for everyone involved in this team, it's a first.
"As a first time coach at state, I'm just as excited as everyone else," says the coach. "However, I know we have higher aspirations than just getting to State, so preparations started immediately. We are certainly enjoying every step of the way."
After a few hours of celebration, the coach and team immediately started preparing for the first of what they hope to be three games next week.
"I know Harlan has a rich history and tradition and is no stranger to the State Tournament," says Johnson. "They have a Hall of Fame coach, whom will have them ready to play."
Harlan Coach Mitch Osborn is taking his 17th team, and ninth from Harlan, to State.
A word of thanks
Johnson expressed appreciation to VS fans and families.
"I just want to thank everyone for their continued support and hope we can continue to make everyone proud," he says.
Player's praise for Coach J
For the past two years, including the off-season, Coach J has been working with the seniors, in hopes of achieving this season's success.
"He has shown us that putting in countless hours of hard work can give us results better than we could have imagined," said Max Griffith. "It has become evident after two years of intense practice during the season and throughout the summer that everything he has taught us has had a purpose."
Sometimes, says Griffith, the Vikings do things that drive coaches crazy. They have started slowly in many games, falling behind in the first quarter. And occasionally, said Griffith, "we forgot to run a play that he had just called a timeout to specifically draw up; stuff like that probable drives every coach insane."
Yet, said the senior, Coach J has weathered those difficulties with patience and confidence.
"Many times this year and in prior years we have put ourselves in a hole early on in games which would worry most coaches. But after coaching us for awhile -- even though he still probably hates it -- he has that trust in us that we will get it together and win. That trust is what makes our team's relationship with him so special," Griffith says.
The players are also keenly aware of the sacrifices Coach J -- who with wife Jill recently celebrated the birth of their fourth child, a boy -- has made to help them earn this opportunity to play for a state championship.
"All the hours of breaking down film, scheduling scrimmages during the summer, and the nights he has spent away from his family have made us all see what ultimate commitment to a goal is," said Griffith. "With our success this season, Coach J has taught us all that anything can be achieved with enough effort. And in doing so, he has become not just an excellent basketball coach to us, but also a great friend that we know we can all count on for the rest of our lives."
Max's mom, Tammi -- one of four team mothers who is also a teacher for VS -- says her family appreciates several things about Coach J's philosophy and approach.
"He has always had a 'family first' belief with the boys," says Tammi Griffith. "He also seems to have a knack of knowing when to be tough and when to back off. He has reinforced their desire to be unselfish players and helped them use this to meet their lofty goals."
Viking senior Chris Merchant says Coach J "stayed up all night" on the eve of the birth of that baby looking and film and preparing a game plan for the district contest vs. Union.
"A lot of coaches would not have done that," said Merchant. "He's a great coach who puts in a lot time for us. But, he is more than a coach and is always there for us outside of basketball."
The mother of the other Viking named Max, Max Kearns, says Coach J’s impact on his players extends far beyond the boundaries of the court.
“From our perspective, Joe has been more than a coach. He has supported Max through a lot of changes in his life through high school, not just basketball,” says Myra Kearns.
Tribute to underclassmen
Coach J said the team's success depends greatly on underclassmen who almost never see playing time, unless the Vikings are leading late in the game. There are several juniors who have worked along with the starters, learning the plays, providing competition in practice, and sweating through hours of hard work, even though they knew when the season began that their game minutes would be few.
"I've been extremely impressed with our juniors this season," said Coach J. "Most of them knew coming in that getting playing time would be tough and they knew that playing JV or end of games when we were ahead by a lot would be the extent of their playing time. They fact that they come to practice everyday and work just as a hard as the starters is unbelievable. The bench kids have really taken on the role of 'making the varsity players better.' They run all of the scout team offense and defense and have to learn new plays all the time. They have all accepted that role and now treasure it. Without them I'm not sure we would be where we are."
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