A glance into the rafters at Johnson High’s gymnasium reveals quite a run of late for the Knights’ boys basketball program.
Banners hang for the 2013 and 2014 Region 8-AAAA titles, the 2013 Lanierland title and the 2014 Sweet 16. Before long, at least one more will join those after the Knights won a battle of unbeatens in defeating Gainesville 76-63 on Dec. 30 for their second straight Lanierland championship.
As nice as those accomplishments have been, senior small forward Roderick English is hoping for a banner that comes with an extra accessory in his final season at Johnson.
“I just want to win a ring for my team,” English said after Monday’s practice.
Knights coach Jeff Steele is making sure his team doesn’t get too far ahead of itself in that pursuit. Despite a 13-0 start, Steele wasn’t pleased with a 59-49 victory Saturday in the GA/NC Challenge against Hayesville (N.C.) at Lakeview Academy or his team’s effort in practice Monday.
Steele doesn’t want that performance slide to become a pattern. He’s counting on seniors like English to make sure Johnson’s players get the message ahead of Friday’s Region 8-AAAA opener, when the Knights welcome Madison County.
“We’re the hunted now,” Steele said. “So we’re going to get everybody’s best effort. And in order for us to be able to deal with that type of situation, we’re going to have to be on top of our game.”
An encouraging sign for Steele in that regard is the maturation of English. A perfect example came in the Lanierland semifinals against Chestatee. English struggled mightily in the first half, then poured in 11 points in a flurry that included a quick trio of 3-pointers that helped break open the contest in the third quarter of a 66-45 victory.
“He got it together,” Steele said. “The Rod in the old days, me getting on him like I did, he might not have handled that as well. So that’s what I mean by his maturity, being able to handle a little bit of constructive criticism and it making him better, taking it and applying it.”
In the past, English said such an approach from Steele would have gotten in his head and made his game suffer.
“Now I just take in what he says and I just keep playing my game and I involve my teammates,” English said. “What he tells me, I let them know. And therefore, we’re all on the same page.”
One night after the Chestatee win, English tallied a team-high 25 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks and carried much of the load in the first half of Johnson’s emotional victory against Gainesville. The Knights felt overlooked heading into that game, even though neither team had suffered a loss entering the Lanierland finals.
“That makes us very hungry because we’re still not getting the respect that we deserve,” English said. “But you can’t make people respect you. So you’re just going to have to earn it. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Against Hayesville, Johnson wasn’t playing at the level Steele wanted, but English poured in 21 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. The coach said his 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior is his best defender and rebounder.
“I need my seniors to be mentally tough,” Steele said. “He’s been a real good leader for us this year. He’s carried us in some games and done the little things that we need done.”
English and leading scorer Ty Cockfield, also a senior, carry the bulk of the scoring load for Johnson, but English knows the Knights offense works best when everyone is involved. One of the latest instances came in a 10-point effort from post player Andrew Sims and an eight-point night from guard Dae’monte Nicholson in the Lanierland championship game.
“If people double in on us and they’ve got schemes going against me and Ty and we don’t realize it and we try to force something, then we won’t do too well,” English said. “Our other teammates, they’re developing, they’re finishing. We’ve just got to trust them.”
English is averaging 20.5 points and 6.1 rebounds and is taking the college recruiting process day by day while focusing on his more immediate goals with the Knights. He said some of his most important goals for this season are for Johnson’s team to be “like a great family” and to play together while heeding Steele’s advice.
“If we just buy into what he’s saying and we just put it into our lives on and off the court, then I feel like we can do something special this year, no matter how people are doubting us or are behind us,” English said. “They’re not the ones putting in the work. We are.”
English’s growth continues to impress Steele.
“He’s like a son to me. It’s just been a pleasure seeing the way he’s progressed,” Steele said. “And even saying that, I think the upside is still in the future. I think he can be so much better. When he gets to college, when he gets some more muscle on him and a better skill set, whoever’s got him is going to be very pleased with the product.”