Johnson: MSU commitment ‘feels great’

Ellie Jo Johnson drives the floor during a prior tournament contest.

Ellie Jo Johnson performs a box out on a free throw attempt.

Ellie Jo Johnson performs a box out on a free throw attempt.

Ellie Jo Johnson rises up for a jumper during a home contest.

Over the balance of her high school career, South Webster’s Ellie Jo Johnson has proven herself as a versatile player who can play all five positions on the floor. Impressive numbers — and Division I offers as a result of her play — have followed.

However, an offer from a rising program in Morehead State, which finished 21-10 over the 2016-17 campaign and made an appearance in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), was too much to pass up for the 6-1 standout. South Webster’s latest basketball standout made her commitment official last Monday to the social media world on Twitter.

For Johnson, the decision to commit to the Eagles had a lot to do with a former teammate and a All-Ohio member who has found her own niche at the Division I level.

“Playing with Kacie Hall my freshman and sophomore year had a lot to do with my decision to commit to Morehead State and go Division I,” Johnson said. “Kacie was a great player and a great leader, and I talked to her a lot about how she liked it at Presbyterian. I was really struggling with going either Division I or Division II, but Kacie said that she loved playing Division I basketball. She loves everything about it.”

Based off of the numbers and the work ethic, Johnson is clearly a player that is deserving of such an honor.

Since the start of her high school basketball career, the 6-1 talent has been nothing short of astounding during her high school career. As a freshman and sophomore, Johnson averaged 13 and 15.7 points per contest, respectively, to obtain Second-Team All Southeast District honors while leading South Webster to Division IV, Region 15 Semifinal appearances in 2015 and 2016.

Then, with a strong senior class that included Hall, one of the best girls basketball talents in the entire state, gone due to graduation, Johnson simply willed the Lady Jeeps back to the Division IV District Finals this past year by averaging 18.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and four steals per game. Her efforts, which included bringing the ball up the floor for the Lady Jeeps, playing off the ball, and operating in the low post, gave the junior First-Team All-Southeast District honors for the first time in her career.

As a result, Johnson has not only collected three consecutive All-SOC and All-District honors, but has been named All-Ohio in each of her three seasons of high school basketball, as well.

That penchant for success is another welcome sign for a Morehead State women’s basketball unit that was arguably the most improved team in the country in all of Division I under Greg Todd, who will be entering his fourth season as the head coach of the Eagles’ women’s basketball program.

After winning over 71 percent of his contests at NCAA Division III powerhouse Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., Todd made the move to Morehead State in 2014. The Eagles only went 22-38 during his first two years, but made a massive 10.5 game improvement in 2016-17 by going 21-10 — an astounding improvement over his first two years at the helm.

“(Greg) Todd has really turned the program around,” Johnson said. “Whenever I went there, they had bracelets made with the number 22 on them. I asked them, ‘What does that mean?’ They said, ‘We want to improve every year. Since we won 21 games last year, we want to win 22 or more this year.’ It just showed me that they are always working to get better and improve their games. I love that part about the program.”

It also helps that Morehead State is not only close to home, but offers Johnson the chance to win over coaches with early playing time. When Johnson arrives on the Morehead, Ky.-based campus in the Fall of 2018, she’ll be one of only three forwards that are of less than junior eligibility.

“I really wanted to stay close to home, and that’s why I chose Morehead,” Johnson said. “It’s only an hour and 15 minutes, an hour and a half away from home, so my family and friends could come and watch me play. That way, it’s far enough to establish a new beginning for myself, but it’s close enough so that if something happens, I can be home in an hour. That was really important to me. I also wanted to go somewhere where I could have the opportunity to see the floor early on. Everyone’s got to work for their spot, and I know that. I’m going to start out right at the bottom just like where all freshmen start. You have to work your way up, and I understand that.”

After initially playing as a hybrid forward, Johnson, as mentioned before, had to pick up much of the production left behind by her fellow classmates from the Class of 2016, especially as far as ballhanding duties were concerned. However, her aforementioned statistics and resulting success as a unit has shown that the multi-dimensional talent has no issues in trying to do what’s best for the team.

“(Bringing the ball up the floor) is really doing me a lot of good,” Johnson said. “I’m learning how to handle the ball and effectively neutralize ball pressure.

Johnson, however, is used to changing positions — the multi-positional talent had to play out front in middle school, after initially starting out as a post player, due to issues with depth and experience.

“(Learning how to play out on the perimeter) has really helped my ballhandling, as well as my speed and my quickness,” Johnson said. “When I got to high school and played alongside Kacie, that allowed me to play the three, and that’s where I fell in love with the three-spot.”

But before she attempts to play the small forward position at Morehead State, Johnson wants to help her Mom, Kristie, and her teammates, finally get over the hurdle that is the Waterford Wildcats. Waterford has knocked South Webster out of the OHSAA Division IV Tournament in each of the last five seasons.

“It has become our biggest goal,” Johnson said. “At the beginning of the year, we always discuss our main goal for the year. That goal is to get back to playing Waterford. Honestly, no one thought that we were going to be able to get back and play Waterford last year, especially with how we started the season. We started it out very rough. When we got back there, no one thought that we’d play Waterford close last year. They all thought that we’d lose by 20-plus points. The fact that we lost by just one point in overtime was a huge boost for our whole community.”

That contest, Johnson says, is proof that success could be right around the corner for the Lady Jeeps, and that a regional title, along with a Division IV Final Four appearance, are certainly attainable goals.

“We are right where we need to be,” Johnson said. “We need to keep pushing and improve our games, because we’re right there with all of the other teams in Division IV. We can make it to the Final Four.”

Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7