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Johnson boys basketball poised for a run
Johnson High’s Sean Wiese joins teammates in running sprints on the basketball court in the school’s gymnasium Wednesday afternoon.

Ty Cockfield’s first indication that Johnson had a chance to have a special season was fall conditioning. The new sophomore point guard was immediately impressed with how everyone was on the same page, trying to get better for basketball season as the Knights jumped up to Class AAAA for 2012-13.

“I could tell early on this team had a chance to be special,” said Cockfield, who spent his freshman year at Gainesville High. “All the drills, fun, sweat and tears we put in together.”

And with half the region schedule still ahead before the 8-AAAA tournament opens at Johnson High on Feb. 12, Cockfield’s initial read of the unit he first got to know playing a few years back at South Hall Middle seems to be right on track.

The Knights’ 85-33 win in the region opener against Madison County on Tuesday was one of their most impressive. The score quickly became lopsided after Johnson hit 6 of 10 3-pointers in the first half against the Red Raiders and 73 percent from the field on the night. Johnson (13-4, 1-0 Region 8-AAAA) hopes to keep that kind of momentum with eight more region games left, one against each school, before hosting the Region 8-AAAA tournament next month.

The Knights would love to finish the regular season strong, in hopes of drawing a high seed for the region tourney, and needing just one win there to qualify for state. Johnson coach Jeff Steele, in his 14th season, sees a lot of characteristics in this season’s team he thinks lend themselves to a possible playoff run, even though the Knights started the season with only two returning starters.

He feels like they have all the right pieces in place, and everyone on the team is good at fulfilling their role.

The Knights have a dominant post player in 6-foot-7 senior Montrell McKenzie, a masterful rebounder, who averages 16 points and 13.4 rebounds per game and has posted a double-double in all but one game this season. Cockfield is best as a mid-range shooter and also averages 16 points per night. Sophomore Roderick English is the defensive specialist, but still averages double-digits scoring each game. Steele says that his junior point guard Drew Dunham is a ‘cerebral’ player and understands how to get the rest of the team into place to run the offense.

“We have five guys that have to be guarded at all times,” Steele said.

Steele says that the hot-hand scoring rotates regularly with six different players that have led the team at least once. Cockfield’s best night came with 31 points and eight assists against region rival Chestatee early in the season, while English had 26 points and eight rebounds in one of its two wins against West Hall. McKenzie’s best individual night was in a season-opening win with 26 points and 20 rebounds against Class AAAAAA’s South Gwinnett on Nov. 17. Carter Cagle is also a player to watch for the Knights, averaging 11 points a night.

Cockfield says, thanks in large part to that offseason conditioning, they’ve grown very close and have a mutual respect for every players’ talent.

“We love each other on this team and all work very hard,” Cockfield said. “With each win, we grow closer.”

Johnson opened the season with an eight-game winning streak. Along with the season-opening win against the Comets, the Knights picked up wins against talented Lakeview Academy and Lanier programs during its long early winning streak.

The four loses also served a purpose, even though they were tough to swallow at the time. The Knights lost in overtime to Jefferson on Dec. 11, then to North Hall in the championship game of the Lanierland tournament. Then in the Chris Mance Memorial Tournament at Gainesville, Johnson went toe to toe with Class AAAAAA’s Chattahoochee and Class AAAAA’s Dunwoody, before losing both.

Against Chattahoochee, Johnson led by nine points with four minutes left before losing 66-63. Then the following night, the Knights led Dunwoody by seven points with three minutes left, but ended up losing 75-70 in OT.

“We got humbled at Gainesville,” Steele said. “It was a case of missing free throws late and not rebounding well.”

Steele hopes the wrinkles have been smoothed out as the Knights have won their last three games by wide margins. Starting last week, the Knights’ coaching staff implemented a grading system for evaluating each players performance in the game. Steele, who has guided Johnson three separate times to the second round of the playoffs, says the biggest way for one of his players to get points is by drawing a charge, while the biggest mark against their score comes by not boxing out or not running the offense correctly.

A negative score for a game results in a player having to perform ‘physical reminders,’ which is a proper way of saying they have to run. As a result, Steele’s noticed that when players thinking about consequence for poor play in games, it also carries over to taking practice time more seriously.

“It’s very fun to play on this team,” English said. “Not many teams play on a team that have this kind of confidence in each other.”

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