Unconventional path takes Johnson from walk-on to star

by Mike Lucas / Beacon Staff • February 27, 2014

Kelsey Johnson attacks the basket against a Mount Ida defender.
Andrew Harwood / Beacon Archives
Kelsey Johnson attacks the basket against a Mount Ida defender.
Andrew Harwood / Beacon Archives

Sometimes, the best things in life you never see coming. 

That was the case with Emerson women’s basketball coach Bill Gould and one breakout sophomore, whom he now counts on as one of the team’s key contributors.

According to Gould, when Kelsey Johnson showed up to Emerson’s accepted students day in the spring of 2012, she was as much of an unknown as the rest of the incoming freshmen he hadn’t recruited. 

Little did Gould know, he would soon meet the player who would become Emerson’s second-most productive player in the 2013-14 season, as Johnson was the Lions’ second leading scorer (7.3) and rebounder (6.8). Junior Kristin Brice led the team in both.

“She has the ability to score, shoot, dribble, block shots,” said Gould, who thinks Johnson could become one of the best players in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference. Emerson switched into the NEWMAC this year, finishing 8-17 and 4-16 in-conference. “I literally don’t know if there’s a kid in the league better at all those skills than Kelsey.”

Johnson grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., where she played three years of varsity basketball for Christian Brothers Academy High School. During her time there, her team won three Liberty League Championships, she was named team captain her senior season, and she said she put basketball over everything, including her schoolwork. 

“Maybe that wasn’t the best decision ever, but you make sacrifices for the things you love,” Johnson said with a chuckle.

In almost all college athletics recruiting, the coach scours the high school talent available and will reach out to certain players if they’re interested. 

It’s uncommon for a player to recruit themselves to a school, but that’s what Johnson did with Emerson. According to Gould she sent in a highlight reel, but that brief clip was all that he knew of Johnson before she arrived on campus.

“The first time I ever saw her play live was her freshman year here,” Gould said.

When Gould goes fishing for recruits, he looks for three things in particular: the player must be tough, must be smart, and must have at least one skill that will translate to the Division 3 level. Johnson had all those traits, and Gould said he would have been interested if she had come across his radar in high school.

“I just literally don’t think I was ever at anything she was [playing] at,” Gould said, “so I never had an opportunity to see who she was.”

Emerson needed to boost its program numbers, so Gould let Johnson join the team as a walk-on. He admitted he wasn’t sure how much Johnson would be able to contribute.

“My thought was, she was a decent athlete, she was a good kid, but, really, what’s she going to give you?” said Gould. “I just didn’t know and went on the assumption [that] she wasn’t going to be that great — a nice filler kid. But it actually turned [that] out she was pretty good.”

Despite not being recruited by Emerson, Johnson said the decision to come here was an easy one.  She said she did spurn recruiting efforts from other schools like Endicott and NEWMAC foe Babson.

Women’s basketball was one of Emerson’s teams that left the Great Northeastern Athletic Conference to join the NEWMAC. The NEWMAC is considered to be a step up in competition from the GNAC, and Johnson stepped up to the challenge. Her scoring and rebounding numbers increased from her freshman to her sophomore seasons, and she attributes her success to her new mentality on the court.

“Last season I was a freshman and was nervous all the time,” Johnson said. “This year I really had to calm down and be tough mentally and physically. This new mentality really helped me to become a better player.”

Gould said that Johnson has become a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

“Her biggest strength is her physical ability,” Gould said. “At the Division 3 level, if you’re 6 feet tall, you usually don’t have that type of mobility. If you have that type of mobility, you’re generally not that tall.”

Johnson is one of only three 6-footers on this year’s team — along with Brice and Catherine Cloutier, both juniors.

“I was really small until about eighth grade,” said Johnson, who learned the game from a guard’s perspective. “I actually woke up one morning and was suddenly 5-feet–9-inches.”

Johnson still has two years of eligibility left at Emerson, and no one is more excited about her future than Gould. He says Johnson may not be Emerson’s best player at any one particular skill, but she’s as well-rounded as they come.

“[Kelsey] could be an absolutely dominant put-her-wherever-you-want type of player,” Gould said. “She has the potential to be just a spectacular player.”

 

Assistant sports editor Connor Burton did not edit this story because he is dating a member of the women’s basketball team.