SportStars Magazine

Hoops 2014-15: Overdue

  By CLAY KALLAM | Contributor

  Allison Johnson has been coaching at Vanden High for 10 years. She’s won an even 250 games, and lost just 54.

  But when people talk about Sac-Joaquin girls’ basketball, the conversation usually — and rightfully — begins with St. Mary’s-Stockton, a private school that can, and does, draw players from a wide geographic area. Sacramento, a magnet school that can bring in players from anywhere in the state’s capital, has been a consistent power since mayor (and former NBA player) Kevin Johnson helped the school focus on athletics.

  In the 10 years Allison Johnson has been at Vanden, the Fairfield school has won 10 league titles.

  Recently, Brookside Christian burst onto the scene, gathering a host of elite talent to the private school in Stockton while competing with Modesto Christian, another private school, for smaller school dominance.

  So when there are discussions about the best programs in the Section, Vanden is just an afterthought, despite all the success, and in spite of the inherent advantages of private schools and magnet schools.

  “We get who we get,” says Johnson of Vanden, located just outside Travis Air Force Base. But somehow, whoever they get goes on the court and wins a bunch of games.

  Every year.

  And league titles.

  Every year.

  So why not Vanden? Why do the Vikings always seem to be the footnote and not the headline?

  “I do feel people underestimate us,” says junior guard Kiana Moore. “They think we’re not that good, but when we step on the court and show out, they realize we’re a really good team.”

  Well, maybe the many teams that the Vikings have beaten over the years, but the more casual fan? Not so much.

 Kayla Blair “We need to win a section title and get to state,” says Johnson, without a hint of disappointment. “We haven’t done that yet.”

  Of course, Vanden might have, but it always seems that injuries get in the way. Last year, the Vikings lost star Mariah Williams (now at the University of Nevada) for almost all of the season, and point guard Toni Taylor didn’t play at all. Even without those two top-shelf talents, Vanden went 25-7 before losing to Florin-Sacramento in the SJS semifinals and eventual-state champion Modesto Christian in NorCals. 

  “It was pretty frustrating,” says Kayla Blair, a senior this year who will play for Pepperdine in 2015. “Two of our best players were injured.”

  Jake Johnson, Allison’s husband and assistant coach, feels the same way. “The last three years, we’ve gone in with high expectations,” he says, “but we just cannot stay healthy. It gets frustrating when we watch teams move on that we’ve beaten.”

  Allison agrees, of course. “Keeping everyone healthy is huge,” she says, but she doesn’t complain. “Good is the enemy of the great — I just try to make the best of the group that we have.”

  And this year’s group? If healthy, Allison Johnson is excited. “This is quite possibly the best defensive team I’ve ever coached.”

  Blair uses her strength and quickness to stifle opposing guards, and Moore, another elite talent, is also a tremendous defender. Add in sophomore Julia Blackshell-Fair, one of the best all-around players in the Class of 2017, and all the ingredients are on hand for a team designed to clog up even the most efficient offense.

  And speaking of offense, Blair, Moore and Blackshell-Fair can all score. The return of Taylor, the senior point guard, has Johnson excited about prospects at that end of the floor. 

  “She’s the smartest point guard I’ve had,” says Johnson, who was a very good point guard herself at Justin-Siena and Solano College. “She just totally gets it.”

  But the tallest member of that group is the 5-10 Blackshell-Fair, who’s a wing, so Vanden may have some issues inside. “Rebounding is one of our weak points,” concedes Blair, but the Johnsons are used to operating with a size deficit.

  “My first six-footer was Emma (Amarikwa, now at San Diego State),” says Allison Johnson. “We’ve typically been a 5-10 and under team — so we treat everyone like a guard.” 

  But Vanden also gets ready for the rebounding wars by bulking up the schedule, both in the summer and in preseason. “We try to play the most rigorous schedules we can,” she says, “so we are constantly challenging ourselves.”

  This year, for example, the Vikings are not only traveling to the Nike TOC near Phoenix — the most prestigious girls tournament in the country — but they are also playing in the West Coast Jamboree in a bracket with Carondelet-Concord, St. Mary’s-Berkeley, Southern California-power Brea-Olinda, Bishop Manogue (one of Nevada’s best) and Berkeley.

  “You can go 0-4 and 0-3 in those two tournaments and still be pretty good,” she says — but don’t expect Vanden to lose seven straight games, even at that level.

  “We’re both super, super competitive,” says Jake Johnson, and that 250-54 overall record doesn’t include many losing streaks of any length. Allison Johnson just won’t stand for it.

  “She’s a really nice person off the court,” says Blair, “but on the court, she’s very intense. She brings out the best in her players — I know if I take a play off, she’ll be all over me.”

  “She’s really hard on the girls, and really demanding,” says Jake Johnson, “but she’s really compassionate and cares about every player who comes through the program.”

  The Johnsons also work well together, which wouldn’t always be the case for a husband-and-wife team in the crucible of competition. “We tag-team everything,” says Jake Johnson, “but she is the voice. We work it out together, but it comes from her.”

  “Coach Jake tells us what to do,” says Moore, “and she enforces it.”

  What comes from everyone at Vanden, though, is a burning desire for that breakthrough season that no one will be able to ignore.

  “Our goal is to definitely get that Sac-Joaquin championship,” says Moore, “and get past the second round of NorCals.”

  “We want a section title,” says Blair, and after losing in the SJS Division III finals twice (to Sacramento in 2011 and Christian Brothers in 2013), they are focused on not falling short this time around.

  As Blair mentioned, rebounding will be crucial, as will staying healthy. The Johnsons, though, are making adjustments, as they always do.

  “Each year is a little different,” says Johnson — for example, this year’s defensive excellence is great, but there are some offensive questions. “We’re really unselfish,” says Allison Johnson, “sometimes too much.”

  So adjustments will be made, and the Johnsons will try to tweak the system to maximize the chances of outlasting quality opposition to finally win that elusive Section title.

  “How will we match up?” says Allison Johnson. “I can’t wait to see.”

L to R: Blair, Blackshell-Fair and Moore

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