Kevin Colley, Staff Writer
MOREHEAD, Kentucky — Throughout her high school career at South Webster, all Ellie Jo Johnson ever wanted to do was lead her team to the Schottenstein Center.
Unfortunately for Ellie Jo, South Webster never got that chance due to talented runs that Eastern Meigs and Waterford put together.
However, life has a funny way of working itself out.
By virtue of winning 12 of its last 16 games between regular season and conference tournament action, Morehead State advanced to the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament semifinals before falling to Tennessee-Martin.
However, in advancing that far, and going 24-11 overall and 13-5 in the OVC, the Eagles obtained a Women’s National Invitational Tournament bid.
Better yet, the bracket’s reveal showed that Morehead State was matchup up with Ohio State.
At the Schott.
It just goes to show that if one works hard enough, one’s dreams can really come to fruition … no matter how long it takes or the circumstances surrounding it.
That dream, however, may have not come true if it weren’t for Ellie Jo’s mother, Kristie, and five special men from Amanda-Clearcreek. After all, it was to her mother, and those five men — Scott Cox, Butch Kobel, Ralph Martin, Rod Martin, and Clayton Stair — that Johnson made her first significant promise to.
“When I was eight, my mom took me to the OHSAA State Tournament at the Schott,” Johnson said. “Once we sat down in our seats, we met five gentlemen from Amanda-Clearcreek. These men were basketball junkies, and throughout the weekend we became friends. I told them and my mom that one day, I would play on that court and I made them promise to me that they would come watch. Every year after that, we continued to go to the state tournament and sit with them while enjoying a weekend of basketball.”
Those five men also got to enjoy a unique skill set in Johnson’s own game, especially as the South Webster native grew older.
Johnson, an All-Ohio player and a 6-foot-1 forward who could truly play all five positions, is just the latest in a long line of successful girls basketball stars at South Webster.
There’s Kayla Cook, who signed with Cincinnati and was a four-year starter. There’s Kacie Hall, who was two years older than Johnson and is currently proving herself as an all-Big South Conference talent at Division I Presbyterian. And, there’s girls like Courtney Blanton, Cheyenne Weakley, Kimber Johnson, Avery Zempter, and Madison Cook, who were all strong talents in their own right.
Their successes, and the ability of Hall and Kayla Cook, among others — including Madison Cook this past season — inspired Ellie Jo to shoot for the stars when it came to developing her game.
“I grew up in a gym and watched players fulfill their dream of playing college ball and saw the amount of hard work and dedication it takes to reach that level,” Johnson said. “Ever since I was little, I told my parents that I wanted to play at the collegiate level. While going through the recruiting process as a junior in high school, I seriously considered playing at NCAA Division II or smaller, knowing that I would get a lot of playing time right away. However, my ultimate goal was to play at the Division I level.”
In more than one facet, Johnson aced her goal.
As a student, Johnson was the Wendy’s High School Heisman female representative for South Webster and earned a GPA of 4.0. She also won several academic scholarships as part of her work in the classroom, including a Southeast Ohio District Athletic Board (SEODAB) Scholarship for her efforts, and was a member of the school’s National Honor Society.
On the court, Johnson was as tremendous as she was off it.
After playing a complimentary role during her first two seasons, Ellie Jo stepped up to be the leader that South Webster needed by notching a double-double average — 18.2 points, and 10.7 rebounds — while adding in 4.6 assists and four steals per game in her junior season.
Johnson, facing double teams most nights during her senior year, then added in 18.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per bout. She earned Division IV first-team all-Southeast District honors and All-Ohio honors in each of her upperclassmen seasons.
And in each of those seasons, South Webster — a Division IV school at the time — didn’t pad their stats by playing undersized schools or programs not known for their basketball pedigree. In fact, 30 of the Jeeps’ 37 contests over the 2016-17 and 2017-18 campaigns came against schools at the Division III level or higher.
“Being from a very small school that was often overlooked taught me that no matter how big the school or how good the players were, there was always a will to win,” Johnson said. “We played strong teams because we had a goal of making a long tournament run. As far as playing the best teams, you’d have to give all the credit and blame to my mom. She always told us we were only as good as our competition, so she scheduled tough teams every year so we could find out how good we actually were and what we needed to improve on. The number of wins we obtained each season was not important to my mom. She was more focused on scheduling tougher teams to get us ready for tournament time. Playing with talented players in high school are definitely memories that I cherish, and they helped me get to where I am today.”
As mentioned, Johnson could’ve easily decided to go to a Division II or NAIA program, where the possibility of a more prominent role was certainly on the table with hard work over the offseason.
Johnson’s dream of playing at the NCAA Division I level, however, overrode those attractive overtures from smaller programs. That was especially the case when Johnson went to watch Morehead State’s program and Greg Todd — a coach that held a 612-203 record in his 25 seasons of coaching prior to Johnson’s freshman year.
Ellie Jo ended up committing to the Eagles the June prior to the start of her senior year, and stuck with her commitment all the way to the early signing period, when she officially signed with the Eagles on Nov. 8 — three weeks prior to the start of her final regular season as a Jeep.
“Before I made my decision on which college I would attend, I went to Morehead State to watch a couple of games, and the thing about [Greg] Todd that stood out to me was his calm composure and attitude,” she said. “When I took my official visit, he was very up front with his expectations for me on the court and in the classroom, and I really appreciated that. He has a very strong resume with a lot of winning seasons and I’m very thankful for what I’ve already learned from him as a coach.”
As with the vast majority of college athletes, however, the road for Johnson hasn’t been easy.
Normally used to conditioning beginning a month-and-a-half prior to the beginning of the season, Johnson moved down to Morehead this past June to begin preparing with her future teammates — where she quickly realized that basketball was going to have to take nine months of devotion, if not more.
“I moved to Morehead State in June to start working out and conditioning for basketball, whereas in high school, we didn’t start conditioning until October,” Johnson said. “The season is so much longer and I definitely devoted more time into basketball this year than any other year before. The pace of the game at the collegiate level is so much faster than in high school. The strength of the girls at this level is unbelievable as well. I thought I was pretty strong and quick, but once I got to Morehead State, I realized how much more I needed to improve.”
During that time, her family support has been absolutely vital.
In addition to Kristie — someone who has been among Ellie Jo’s main inspirations and support factors in chasing her dream — her father Shane, and her sisters, Kimber and Maecee, have been critical in her ability to handle the steep transition.
“My dad keeps me sane,” Johnson said. “Whenever I just feel like everything is going wrong, he helps me look at the bigger picture. When I’m having a bad day, I call him and he instantly cheers me up. He always tells me, ‘Don’t worry about the things you can’t control.’ Those words have helped me so much this past year. I love my dad so much and I’m so thankful to have a father like him. My sisters mean the world to me. They have my back no matter what and have always been some of my biggest supporters. Being away from home is tough because I don’t live with them and see them every day. So I’ve learned to cherish the time I get to spend with them when I get the chance to go home.”
This past season, Johnson, one of three freshmen signees in Morehead State’s 2017-18 class, was the only to see the floor. The Eagles, loaded with experienced talent including four-year starter Miranda Crockett and three-year starter Darianne Seward, didn’t have a litany of room in its rotation.
South Webster’s latest’s upcoming basketball talent, however, still played 25 games and received double-digit minutes in seven of those affairs.
“Playing my freshman year at Morehead State has taught me that my good needed to get better,” Johnson said. “I have learned a lot from the seniors on my team this year and got to experience a record-breaking season. I’m already preparing for next season and anxiously looking forward to my sophomore year.”
Her work in the classroom, as a whole, is in even better shape. Johnson is an Exercise Science major with the hopes of becoming a Physical Therapist. She already has sophomore eligibility due to her work in high school, where she earned college credit hours as a result of taking advanced classes.
“School has been going very well,” Johnson said. “South Webster prepared me for the types of classes and professors I would be exposed to in college, and for that I’m grateful. I took a lot of college credit classes in high school, which got me ahead of the game.”
And, of course, she got to fulfill that dream of hers by playing at the Schott in front of the same five men from Amanda-Clearcreek who she had conversed with for the first time just over a decade earlier.
“Throughout the years, they have traveled to a couple of my games and they even made an appearance at my signing,” Johnson said. “Last Wednesday, when I was warming up with my team at the Schott, I heard my name from the crowd and when I looked in that direction, I saw those five crazy guys that I met in that gym over 10 years ago cheering for me. Being on the court and having my friends and family there to support me is definitely a memory I will never forget.”
Going forward, Ellie Jo Johnson has big plans for her future. For starters, she wants to become a better basketball player so she can help her team secure not only future postseason bids, but hopefully, the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid in the sport of women’s basketball.
“Although this was a historical season with a lot of broken records, I hope that next year, we can come into the season with the same energy and determination,” Johnson said. “My seniors definitely left the program better than they found it, and I hope to do the same by my senior year.”