When a person gives as much to the game of basketball as South Webster’s Ellie Jo Johnson has, it’s always exciting to see a dream turn into reality right in front of the eyes of the loved ones that helped the talented 6-1 student-athlete reach that point.
On Wednesday afternoon, the All-Ohio honoree, who is just as stellar in the classroom as she is on the basketball court — as evidenced by her 4.0 GPA and National Honor Society billing — officially made her dream a reality in front of the very community that has watched her grow up by inking a National Letter of Intent with the Morehead State University women’s basketball program inside the halls of South Webster High School.
For Ellie Jo, the honor of signing with the nation’s most improved women’s college basketball program in all of NCAA Division I from the 2015-16 to 2016-17 campaigns is, indeed, a great honor.
“Morehead State’s definitely improved a lot,” Ellie Jo said. “I’ve been to a few practices to watch, and him and (Abby) Jump (Morehead State assistant coach, Ellie Jo’s primary recruiter) are right there in it the whole time, working their tails off just as much as the girls are, so I’m really excited.”
As for Kristie Johnson, the road of sending a talented high school prospect to a Division I school is a road that has already been traveled by the veteran leader of the Lady Jeeps, as evidenced by Kayla Cook’s signing to Cincinnati and Kacie’s Hall’s current tenure with Presbyterian College in South Carolina. However, considering that Ellie Jo is Kristie’s daughter, the road is, undoubtedly, an extra-special one.
“This one’s extra-special, of course,” Kristie said. “It’s been a big part of our lives. We’ve been in the gym together all of our lives. It’s very special. Very special.”
But with the paths of Cook and Hall in mind, Ellie Jo and Kristie wanted to keep the memory of the trailblazing duo alive. So when Ellie Jo put the ink to paper, the 6-1 standout did so by using the exact same pin that Cook and Hall did on their signing days.
“I actually didn’t know about that until about five minutes before I signed,” Ellie Jo said, laughing. “I didn’t know that there was a special pin, but it’s really cool that I got to sign with that pin, because I’ve looked up to Kayla Cook and Kacie Hall. It was an honor and a privilege to play with Kacie Hall, so it was certainly really cool.”
Johnson, who has proven herself as a versatile talent that can play all five positions on the floor whenever called upon, will leave South Webster as one of the best and brightest to ever don a Lady Jeep uniform. Just last year, Ellie Jo averaged 18.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and four steals per game — all team highs — as South Webster willed its way to the Division IV District Finals despite a young nucleus that only featured two seniors on its entire roster (Cheyenne Russell and Alicia Watson). From that statline, and by just watching one game of Ellie Jo, the senior’s high basketball IQ is readily apparent.
“Her knowledge of the game has been the most important thing,” Kristie said. “Being able to see the court and see opportunities that are there is huge. You can have athleticism and you can shoot, but if you don’t know what’s there for the taking, your potential will always be limited. Kids don’t watch ball anymore. They just don’t. So the fact that she’s been around it all of her life and understands the game, as well as the knowledge of the little things, is huge. Her ability to handle the ball with her size, and her ability to run the show, is really good. She does a good job.”
The statline, and her humble confidence to the game of life, also shows off another quality that Ellie Jo has developed within the South Webster program — leadership.
“We had Kacie Hall, Cheyenne Weakley, and Kimber Johnson, so Ellie Jo’s role wasn’t as enhanced as it is now,” Kristie said. “The leadership aspect of her game has definitely come along, and she stepped into that leadership role early on in her career and filled that slot. Also, she’s always been good at driving and getting into the lane, but her ballhandling has definitely improved because she had to take over at the one. Her ballhandling has become a lot better since her freshman year.”
“It was good having the senior groups that I had in front of me,” Ellie Jo said. “I had Taylor Shonkwiler, Hayley Giles, Cheyenne, Kacie, Kimber, and Maddie (Stamper), so I had a great set of leaders to teach me how to go about my business, and that was huge for me. I wouldn’t be the leader that I am today if it wasn’t for them.”
At Morehead State, finding girls with strong basketball IQs and leadership is something that head coach Greg Todd — who is in his fourth season with the program — is no stranger to doing.
After winning just 22 games in his first two seasons while finding the players necessary to fit his system, Todd — who has collected a 591-172 overall mark in stops at Lexington Catholic High School (Ky.) and Transylvania University (Ky.) — led the Eagles to a 21-10 overall record, which was an 11-win increase from the previous year. Morehead State made the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) as a result, which was the Eagles’ first appearance in a postseason tournament since the 2009-2010 campaign.
In the offseason, Todd, because of that success, earned a four-year extension that will keep the fourth-year MSU leader at the school until 2020. Ellie Jo committed to the program during the summer months largely due to that extension.
“(Greg Todd) just got his contract renewed for four years, so he’ll be there until I’m a junior, at least,” Ellie Jo said. “I love Coach Todd. I love his personality. I’m more of a country girl, and he’s more of a country guy, so that part really appealed to me. I’m really excited to play for him.”
During her time on campus, the 6-1 do-it-all student-athlete also got to see how the program was run from an everyday standpoint, as Ellie Jo took in a couple of official practices while on her visit.
And according to the South Webster standout, the uptick in overall speed is certainly noticeable. But while the speed adjustment will certainly be a challenge, it’s a challenge that Johnson relishes.
“It’s a lot faster-paced,” Ellie Jo said. “But I like that. I like transition basketball. It’s my favorite part of the game, so I’m excited for that aspect. There’s no stopping. You get a drink of water and you’re right back in there going full speed. It’s a very fast-paced game, but I’m really excited to play at that level. It’s where I’ve always wanted to be at.”
Still, there are still goals that Johnson absolutely has to take care of before the 6-1 senior departs her hometown. And one of those goals includes surpassing the hump that is the Waterford Lady ‘Cats.
“I watch film on Waterford every day before I play,” Ellie Jo said. “I’ve got film memorized, and I dream about it. (Defeating them) is my goal, and it’s our team’s goal, for sure.”