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Cole Johnson will finish off a standout junior season at the boys' volleyball state championship game at Penn State University Saturday, June 10, 2017. Jim Seip, YDR

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Those closest to Cole Johnson talk about his vast improvement.

The way he carries himself on and off the volleyball court. How he brings the best out of the players around him. How he doesn't hit balls through the wall anymore, opting for the smart play instead of all-power all-of-the-time.   

It’s not that he didn’t do some of that before.

It’s just that the Central York junior changed so much in just one year.

A standout on Central York's state championship-bound team, he will attract plenty of attention when the Panthers face North Allegheny at 1 p.m. Saturday in the PIAA Class 3A title game at Penn State University.

He digs. He passes out of the back row. He can hit out of the back row. There's little missing in his game, even the way he serves as one of the leaders on a senior-laden team. 

But what triggered this shift? 

Johnson explained it might have started with a bad landing. A pop in his knee. A year spent trying to regain his health. A year spent playing in a lost season, or at least it would have been a lost season if not for how it changed him.

• • •

At 6-foot-7, Johnson is one of the tallest player in the York-Adams league. Many would argue, he’s the most dominating.

He bashes kills inside the 3-meter line, giving opponents no chance of touching the ball — let alone playing it.

After one kill in the YAIAA championship match, fans in the first row stood up in amazement covering their mouths.

"I think I've seen it a couple times this year where he just refused to let the team lose," Central York coach Todd Goodling said. "I wouldn't say that he carried them on his back, but he had an intensity level that wasn't there in other years."

His Central teammates chanted “UCLA! UCLA!” as he slapped hands during player introductions for the District 3 title match. He explained the reaction after the match that UCLA was one of the school’s that has shown an interest in him. As one of the nation’s top junior recruits, Johnson expects to take official visits to UCLA, USC and Loyola (Chicago) this summer, his father Jeff Johnson confirmed.

He also has received interest from Penn State, where his father played volleyball from 1984-87.

But an injury that kept Cole Johnson off the court last winter could prove to be one of the big difference-makers during his high school career.

"The biggest thing for me as a coach, there's such a bigger sense of maturity and goals and understanding what he wants to do," Goodling said. "You know, the talent is there, but you get a lot of talented kids that never develop that other aspect.

"The sense of maturity for him has been heart warming as a coaching staff to watch."

• • •

On the court during a water break for his club team last winter, Cole Johnson leaped to hit a ball and came down wrong.

“It wasn’t even a bad landing,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think it was completely serious.

“I felt a pop and went to the ground. I was just sitting there looking at my leg. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t feel right.”

He had broken a growth plate behind his kneecap.

He underwent surgery.

He wore a big metal brace.

He went through physical therapy three times a week.

Johnson still played for Central York last season, but looking back he wishes he could change some aspects of that sophomore year.

“I was a little out of shape,” Johnson said.

His father estimates Cole was probably 70 percent last season. He was unable to play his typical dominating style.

“It kind of taught me to be a more level-headed person and help all the players around me,” Johnson said. “There’s no point picking yourself up, if you’re not going to make sure to pick up the players around you.”

Finally healthy again during club season, Johnson thrived as a setter — a really tall setter —  for Yorktowne Volleyball Club. 

"He rose to the occasion," his father said. "That was really his transition, where he started really working hard and concentrating."

It carried over into the high school season.

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Cole Johnson smashed a game-high 17 kills to help lead Central York to the regular-season YAIAA crown May 11, 2017. Jim Seip, GameTimePA

"He's really proven what he can do this year," Central senior setter Carter Luckenbaugh said. "He just has this mentality that makes everyone on the floor want to follow him and gather around him and just play for him." 

Johnson excelled at club and high school playing different positions and alongside athletes of varying skill sets. 

"If Cole gets in the weight room, there is no ceiling for him," Goodling said. "I think not only does he have the physical skills, but if he addresses the technical issues and if he gets in the weight room that will raise him a couple more levels.

"The thing that won't change is his outright competitiveness."

• • •

Johnson was always one of the young guys. 

When his father held open gyms at Central York Middle School, Cole tagged along. It's where he first played alongside many of the boys who are seniors on this year's Central team.

But father and son admit volleyball was just another sport he played back then. He had lacrosse. He played golf. 

"I never really pushed it with him or his brother," said Jeff Johnson, who worked as an assistant coach for Dallastown volleyball this season. 

Year after year, though, Cole Johnson became more intrigued by volleyball. The more he played, the more interested he became. And the group he first met at those open gyms continue to be one of the driving forces for Central's state playoff team.

"This is a sentimental year for me," Jeff Johnson said.

"You always hear kids say, 'It's a dream come true' or they've been thinking about this since their freshman year. But these guys have really been dreaming about this for all that time, because I can remember pounding this into all these guys in middle school. Oh my gosh, I'm so proud of how hard these guys worked."

Call it coach psychology or just a man knowing how to tap into his son's competitive nature, but Jeff Johnson planted one more thought in his son's head in the last few days. He mentioned that back in 1982, his junior year in high school, Central won the state volleyball title. Now it's Cole Johnson's junior year. And now Central finds itself in a state final.  

The father laughed at his son's reaction: "Gee, thanks for putting the pressure on."

But that has never really been a problem. 

VOLLEYBALL STATE TITLE
Central York vs. North Allegheny
What:
PIAA Class 3A championship
Where: Recreation Building, Penn State University, State College
When: 1 p.m. Saturday

 

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Central York defeated Central Dauphin in a 29-27, 25-21, 25-16 match in the District 3 Class 3A title Thursday, May 25, 2017 at Dallastown. Jim Seip, GameTimePA

 

 

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