Tuesday, March 22, 2011

SPORTS >> Sylvan Hills’ Johnson hits baskets, books

Leader sportswriter

Ashley Johnson does not shy away from achievement.

The Sylvan Hills senior guard and team captain helped lead the Lady Bears to three consecutive state tournament appearances and will graduate as valedictorian later this spring. She was also a three-time all-conference volleyball selection.

Johnson, who averaged 19 points and seven rebounds a game this past season, has been selected Leader Girls Player of the Year.

The soft-spoken Johnson is humble about her accomplishments, which included an 11-point, eight-rebound performance as she wrapped up her high school career in the All-Metro Game last week.

It marked a triumphant final moment for Johnson and Sylvan Hills coach Bee Rodden, who was on the sideline for her final game before her retirement.

Johnson’s All-Metro appearance was one in a long list of accolades, which includes making the all-tournament team at Pulaski Robinson and Central Arkansas Christian this past season. She was also one of KATV Channel 7’s Full-Court Award winners and an Arvest Player-of-the-Week selection.

Johnson had 10 or more points and rebounds five times her senior season and had a career-high 33 points in a non-conference game against Beebe, and 31 in a 5A-Southeast Conference game against Monticello.

If her athletic numbers don’t impress, there is also Johnson’s list of academic accomplishments.

She has had a GPA of 4.0 or better, a No. 1 rank in her senior class of 168, she is a member of the National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, BETA Club, student government and is president of the Senior Executive Committee.

Johnson capped it all off with an ACT score of 30.

“Ashley Johnson is the child that every parent hopes for, the student that every teacher enjoys, and the player that every coach dreams about,” Rodden said.

“To say AJ is an overachiever is an understatement. Her strong work ethic, positive attitude, enthusiasm and dedication combine to make her what every coach wants in a student-athlete.

“I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to coach Ashley Johnson.”

The years before Johnson emerged in basketball were lean ones for Rodden and the Lady Bears. Rodden, who began coaching in the Sylvan Hills system in 1993 and took over the varsity program in 1998, had success early last decade with standout players like Courtney Brown and later Kimberly Maxwell.

But Maxwell’s graduation in 2005 left a void on a team that always thrived on having a go-to leader. The Lady Bears suffered three straight losing seasons without a state tournament appearance.

But a scrappy group of juniors and the addition of Johnson, then a sophomore, helped turn things around. The Lady Bears finished second to Beebe for the 5A-Southeast Conference championship in 2009 and returned to postseason play.

Johnson was hesitant to share in any of the responsibility for the renewed success of the program.

“I hope so,” Johnson said. “But it was really a group, because the seniors that graduated last year carried the team, too. It was just a team effort.

“I was just more encouraging of others. I think I expected more out of the other players than I have been, because I knew we needed to step it up this year. Just pushing them to do their best.”

Johnson, who plans to pursue a career in physical therapy, is in the rare position of being able to accept either an athletic or academic scholarship. Ouachita Baptist, Sam Houston State, the University of Arkansas -Monticello and Lyon College have shown interest in Johnson as an athlete.

With Rodden in the last of her 13 years as varsity coach, the past season had a sentimental quality. Rodden announced her pending retirement from teaching and coaching at the beginning of the year.

She could have retired after last season but wanted to stay on to see Johnson through.

“It’s great,” Johnson said. “I love her to death, and when she announced she was leaving, I was very upset. Even though I’ll be gone, I always expected her to always be here, you know, it’s just her and Sylvan Hills.

“And she’s put a lot of trust in me and guided me.”

While Johnson is headed for the college classroom and Rodden to an upscale retirement/recreation community in Florida, the impact of their time together should make for a successful transition to the next era.

“Believe me, she could have accomplished everything she did this year whether I was here or not,” Rodden said. “I was glad I had the opportunity to be a part of it.”