VINTON — Joe Johnson was an offensive lineman back in the day. A good enough offensive lineman to get Juco all-region honors at NIACC and a partial scholarship offer to Illinois State.
But he turned down the chance to continue playing football, deciding to grab a coach’s whistle instead. One he has ended up using for a completely different sport.
“I was just ready to be done with football,” Johnson said. “You know how it is. It’s a lot of time. I actually started coaching my junior year of college (at UNI), got my first head coaching job at Janesville as a senior in college. I was an assistant in football, and they just happened to need an assistant in basketball. I was like ‘I’ve played basketball.’ I just fell in love with it. I don’t know why.”
Out of Johnson’s unique head coaching background has come the best boys’ basketball season in Vinton-Shellsburg history. The Vikings earned their first No. 1 ranking ever in December, finished with a 24-0 record and are the top seed in Class 3A at this week’s state tournament in Des Moines.
V-S gets Harlan (18-6) in a quarterfinal Tuesday afternoon at 3:45 at Wells Fargo Arena.
“We’re not done, yet,” said Vinton-Shellsburg’s Maxton Kearns. “We have higher aspirations for our team than just getting to state. We want a championship. So we’re really not thinking about what we’ve done, yet. That’s for after the season.”
No matter what happens the rest of the way, these Vikings can be incredibly proud of what they’ve accomplished. They knew they’d be good, returning four starters from a team that lost a substate final last season to Western Dubuque, but they didn’t know they’d be undefeated good.
“Not many teams do it, you know what I mean?” Johnson said. “Just on a night-in, night-out basis, I didn’t know we were tough enough to do that. They proved me wrong. Our kids just kind of took it one game at a time, didn’t let the pressure get to them. I’ve even noticed that here during the tournament. We’ve definitely had our battles, but they just find a way to come through.”
Much of that has to do with the chemistry of this team. Senior starters Kearns, Kelyn Rickels, Grant Sagan and Max Griffith grew up playing ball together with Grant’s younger brother, Nolan, and key reserves Chase Overton and Chris Merchant.
Kearns, Rickels, Griffith and Grant Sagan were recently all named first-team all-Wamac Conference. Sagan is the 00 team’s scoring (19.7 points) and rebounding (8.3) leader and a three-year starter who surpassed 1,000 career points late in the regular season. Griffith has shot an incredible 52 percent from 3-point range (82 of 158).
“I think we just know how to play with each other,” Kearns said. “We don’t have that one 6-10 kid that’s just going to dominate the post. We have a lot of great players, not that one special player.”
“We’ve completed several of our goals so far this year,” Grant Sagan said. “Obviously another one is to win a state championship. I think we’re very proud of what we’ve done this year. Hopefully we get to play a couple more games.”