By Mike Monahan
Talk about a daunting season.
By the time Lake Land coach Dave Johnson watched his players make crucial free throws down the stretch to capture the National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association Division II women’s basketball title last April, he must have been worn considering the challenges the team had faced during the previous 13 months.
Having been ranked No. 3 nationally, Lake Land had watched its national title hopes evaporate when the NJCAA canceled the national tournament a week before its start in March 2020. Not like a team gets this kind of chance every season.
Informal scrimmages were subsequently scrubbed, practice were canceled and the season delayed a few months until January.
And right before this past season began, Abby Weis injured herself, forcing her to miss several games.
Johnson navigated all of the pitfalls to keep the program on track through a season in which the Lakers won their final 16 games en route to a 25-2 record. In doing so, he has earned our inaugural Coles County Sports Coach of the Year award.
Johnson, who has a career 491-252 record in 23 seasons, had previously earned two other national tournament berths.
“I felt we had a strong group of returning players in the sophomores and in three new freshmen plus a transfer,” said Johnson.
“My wife (Stephanie) sacrifices a lot and has been a big fan,” Johnson said. “My sons (Davis, Meade and Madden) are not afraid to speak out. I am very honored to win the awards, but the credit is not just mine. Other people have helped in the process, including my assistant coaches (J.R. Hodges and Tom Titus). To have my family there (national tournament) was special. Stephanie was there the entire week and everyone was there for the semifinals and championship. It was a great experience to have everyone there watching us win the national title.”
Johnson had not been worried about not having practiced in the summer, learning in late June they found out the season would not start until January.
“I knew we had all of the first semester to get ready,” said Johnson. “The delay wasn’t a real big deal as we had late August through early December to practice and get ready.”
The goal was always to earn another berth to the national tournament.
“I was watching the College World Series and during a rain delay they showed the “30 on 30” (ESPN program) Thunder and Lightning on Will Clark and Rafeal Palmerio, and they talked about how they could have, and should have, won the 1985 College World Series. One of their pitchers got hurt. That is the greatest thing about this year. We didn’t have to say we could have. Not a lot of people get to say that; that you were successful in what your goal was.”
After winning the first three regular-season games, Lake Land suffered its only Great Rivers Athletic Conference loss – 61-55 to Wabash Valley College. The Lakers then won six consecutive games, including a 70-55 win over Illinois Central College at East Peoria.
“When we beat IC at IC, I knew we had a chance to have a special season,” said Johnson of the game played Feb. 18. “We beat them in the regional championship at their place last year and so I felt like they were really prepared to play us. They had a lot of returning players and felt good about their tournament chances (finished fourth in the nation) and had a pretty productive season.”
The Lakers later lost to Parkland, 77-67. The Cobras finished 20-4 and entered the national tournament among the top-ranked teams.
“The loss to Parkland woke us up,” said Johnson. “The loss to Wabash was in the first week of the season and I don’t think we knew where we were playing our fourth game in eight days. We were not ready for that game. The loss to Parkland after winning several games in a row told us that we can’t be complacent and we needed to finish games as it was a close game until the fourth quarter.”
Lake Land never lost again after Feb. 28.
But the team did not play for nearly three weeks leading up to the regional tournament.
It didn’t matter.
At nationals, Lake Land defeated Lackawanna, 75-52, and the University of South Carolina Salkehatche, 61-55, to reach the Final Four. In the semifinals, Lake Land reached the title game with a 66-47 win over Parkland before winning it all.
“I think what helped us the most is we were able to score in critical times in games,” said Johnson. “We made an early run in the district game against North Central Missouri and jumped out to a big lead in the first quarter (28-10). In the National Championship game, we led 10-0. I think we were good at putting together runs offensively.”
Practices consisted of ball handling drills and offensive skills every day.
“It was probably the first 40-45 minutes of every practice,” said Johnson. “It was just a routine and some of the offensive skills were different each day to get them all in the first weeks. Once they got it down, they were really efficient in doing drills. They improved their skills and specifically shooting and ball handling. My defensive concept is always man-to-man. Every game it pretty much depends on what the opponent’s strength is as far as if they are more guard-oriented or post.”
Johnson said a lot of good things have happened in sports in recent years.
“Sometimes, if you play so much and lose a lot. Kids play so many basketball games and other sports. Sometimes you lose on a Friday night and you play Saturday morning. So, the Friday night loss didn’t matter. In high school football the loss hurts you for a while and sticks with you because you play every Friday. That is how this year’s team was. When they lost it was not easy for them to take. It pushed them mentally to be so good.”
Johnson said every player on the team had a unique part on the squad.
“This group was very cohesive and definitely about the team and the team’s success. As long as we did well as a team our players were happy. They might not have individually had a good game,but as long as we were successful as a team that overrode the individual stuff.”
Always wanted to be a head coach
“I always knew I wanted to be a head coach,” said Johnson, a Rossville-Alvin graduate, who just finished his 23rd season at Lake Land. “We talked about moving to Arizona before Davis got into school and that didn’t happen. Then Meade was born and, shortly after that, Stephanie started working for Lake Land. After my second year at Lake Land, I interviewed at a high school to be an athletics director, but I was going to have a really good team my third season and that was the first year we went to nationals. After that, there was no thought of leaving.”
Johnson got to play his freshman year under Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach Ken Crawford, who left after four seasons for Teutopolis.
“The big thing with him was his preparation and hard work,” Johnson said. “We were always well prepared defensively. He knew exactly how we needed to play to win.”
Princeton coach Pete Carril also impacted Johnson. Carril is the only men’s coach to win 500 games without the benefit of a scholarship (514-261, .663) across 29 years at Princeton.
“I read his books and I followed him as an assistant for the Sacramento Kings,” said Johnson. “I quote his book, ‘The Smart Take from the Strong.’“
Johnson also looks to Dick DeVenzio, a 1969 Duke Academic All-American and All-Atlantic Coast Conference player, who founded the Point Guard College.
“He has classroom sessions and activities to learn the game of basketball,” said Johnson. “My son Davis took it while in high school.”
Johnson, who earned his associates degree at Danville Area Community College, also earned a bachelors and masters from Illinois State and Eastern Illinois. He first started coaching by guiding a seventh-grade team in the Bloomington School District. He also helped coach fifth and sixth graders at St. Paul in O’Dell before becoming an assistant coach at Illinois Wesleyan.
“I never want to go back to being an assistant again,” said Johnson. “It is good for me to be a head coach.”
The team was fifth in the 3-point attempts in the nation making 207 of 681 for 30.4 percentage, which Johnson said is about average for a Lake Land team. The defense allowed an average of just 53.8 points per game.
“Harley Barry and Tresoir Newson made the all-tournament team at the National tournament and Barry was the Most Valuable Player,” Johnson said. “They are two kids that didn’t get enough recognition and are the ones that didn’t make all-conference. It goes to show you that they came in and performed every day and didn’t get accolades that some of the other starters got, but just as valuable and just as important as any other player. We had really good leadership in different ways. Abby Weiss was the vocal leader. She said things when they needed to be said. Kamaria Gant stepped in when Abby got hurt and really kind of lifted our team offensively when Abby missed seven games. Kayla Sirjord, a transfer, added a lot to the team and was a big help. Freshman Karrington Krable (who was injured in the national championship game) had 17 points in the win over Parkland in the game we won at Parkland and Olivia Niemerg ahd 13 in the national semifinals and didn’t miss a shot. It was a unique year in that given opportunities people stepped up and really took advantage of those opportunities.”
Despite the shortened season, the Lakers sophomores recorded the most wins of any class in a two-year period at 55.
Since the championship, Johnson has received many congratulations.
“(ICC coach) Karrie Redeker immediately congratulated me as the team stayed and watched the game,” said Johnson. “The most important thing was that so many former players congratulated me. I have been at high school shootouts and I have seen a lot of former players that are high school coaches. And a lot of times it was the first time I had seen them since the national title, and it was neat to see. I am in travel baseball, and I had a mom of a player who played for me on the first team to win the conference in 1998-99. That has been the neat part of winning this, getting back in touch with a lot of former players that I had.”
Jeff Miller: The CHS coach culminated a terrific career coaching with an amazing season, leading the girls basketball team to an undefeated season. Unfortunately, the IHSA did not hold any postseason tournaments.
Ryan Ghere: At one point this past school year, MHS’s Ghere coached two teams (boys basketball, girls soccer) on the same day. He coached three teams overall, including boys soccer. He was just named an IHSA sectional coach of the year.
Jerry Payne: After fans endured nearly a decade of insufferable seasons at CHS that included a losing streak that stretched across two seasons, Payne has quickly developed a program that is headed in the right direction, having gone 4-2 for the school’s first winning season since 2012 and its first victory over Mattoon in the Coles County Clash since that same season.
Jarod Kiger: In his first season, Kiger rallied his team from a 1-6 start to win 12 regular-season games in a row to earn the Apollo Conference baseball championship. The Green Wave also earned a regional win.
Bill Behrends: The MHS boys golf team boasted a regional championship and the medalist for that event under Behrends’ leadership. The team also finished third in sectional, which would have earned a state berth had they tournament been held.
Blain Mayhall: A year after losing four college-level players, the CHS softball coach guided the softball team to a regional title, Apollo championship and 24-4 season.