After all his hard work, Laker big man Sam Johnson ready for a breakout season

By Nate Thompson

SPRING LAKE – As a sophomore, Spring Lake’s Sam Johnson had a plan that he presented to varsity basketball coach Bill Core and athletic director Cavin Mohrhardt.

Johnson said he wanted to focus on basketball year-round and drop other sports, a proposition that wasn’t initially supported by Core and Mohrhardt.

“We tried to talk him out of it,” Core admitted. “I’m one of the biggest proponents of kids being two- or three-sport athletes. He was a starting wide receiver on the varsity football team as a sophomore.

“But he told us, ‘You know, I really want to focus on just basketball. I think that’s the best thing for me if I really want to improve.’

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of people say that, but they’ve never followed through with it,’” Core added.

Spring Lake’s Sam Johnson attempts to get a shot off against Whitehall last season. Photo/Kris Rake.

But Johnson followed through with his plan.

He became a consistent visitor to the Spring Lake High School weight room, a necessity for adding strength and agility to his lanky frame.

He worked extensively with Byron Center-area trainer and coach Micah Lancaster, who focused on improving Johnson’s ball-handling and overall skill set.

He battled against quality competition in tournaments across the Midwest on the summer AAU circuit, most recently with the Holland-based West Michigan Lakers.

After all of that hard work, Johnson seems set for a big season. He should be able to eclipse the 9.3 points, eight rebounds and nearly two blocks per contest he averaged as a junior last season.

And his improving skill set could make the Lakers even better than the 19-7 team that reached the Class B state quarterfinals in March.

Spring Lake opens the 2017-18 season on Friday at Fruitport.

Now entering his senior season, Johnson, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound center, could be one of the biggest matchup nightmares in West Michigan.

He’s a huge player who is just as comfortable dropping in soft baby hooks in the paint as he is shooting a face-up jump shot from the 3-point line.

“I’d say my favorite (shot) is a jump hook in the middle of the lane,” said Johnson, a third-year varsity player. “But I’ve been working a lot on my face up game, and passing out of double teams and finding open shooters.

Johnson defends against Whitehall’s Lucas Schumm last season. Photo/Kris Rake

“I’ve worked a lot on my shooting, and I’m a lot more confident putting some three-balls up. But if I’m shooting like five threes a game, I’m thinking Coach Core might not like that too much.”

Core might not fret if Johnson duplicates the shooting touch he showcased in last season’s state quarterfinal game against Benton Harbor, when he scored 10 first-half points on a variety of mid-range jumpers and putbacks in the paint.

The Lakers were 16 minutes away from clinching the program’s first-ever trip to the state Final Four, but the dream slipped away down the stretch.

Benton Harbor erased a 20-13 halftime deficit and handed the Lakers a heartbreaking 46-44 setback. The Tigers gained their winning points on a driving layup by Roy Anderson with 5.1 seconds left in the game.

It’s a loss that still stings Johnson.

“I vividly remember their game-winning basket,” he said. “I was a step late shifting off my guy and getting in the lane. I could have contested (Anderson’s) shot, and maybe he misses it, but it’s a shoulda-woulda type of thing now. You just try to learn from it.”

Johnson will try to apply all the lessons he’s learned in the coming season, which is shaping up as a promising campaign for the Lakers.

Johnson battles Mona Shores’ Tyler Trovinger under the basket. Photo/Jason Goorman

Spring Lake returns its entire front line with Johnson, 6-5 senior forward Griffin Lorimer and 6-1 senior wing Jack VanWingen, a trio that will probably be playing college basketball next season, according to Core.

The Lakers will need their production, as well as steady play from new starting point guard Ben Arteaga, if they want to flourish against a beefed-up non-league schedule that includes Rockford, Grand Haven and Muskegon Heights.

Spring Lake will also have to deal with the rigors of the O-K Blue Conference schedule, which features league favorite Grand Rapids Catholic Central. The Cougars are led by 6-10 forward Marcus Bingham, a Michigan State commit.

Spring Lake lost both regular season games to GRCC last season, then beat the Cougars in the Class B regional finals.

“We love matching up against them, and you definitely have to bring your ‘A’ game every time you play them,” Johnson said. “But we have the confidence that we can beat them and we believe we can play with anyone.”

Johnson may not have spoken so confidently when he was a lanky sophomore who was trying to convince his coach that he should stick exclusively to basketball.

But now his future is bright. He’s received recruiting interest from Ivy League schools, but said he’s strongly considering a pair of Division 3 colleges on each coast – Claremont McKenna College in California, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“He did what he said he was going to do,” Core said of Johnson’s plan to become a one-sport standout. “And because of that, he’s made one of the biggest improvements in two years than probably anyone I’ve ever coached.”


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