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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Santa Clara's Workhorses

Johnson Toes Line, Has a Hand in Fast Start by Broncos

January 23, 1998|ROB FERNAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA CLARA — In his quest to become a better basketball player, Craig Johnson prepared for his senior season at Santa Clara University with fervent dedication, not wanting to let any idle moments slip into his regimen.

"He spent more time on the basketball court in the off-season than any player in the United States," Santa Clara Coach Dick Davey said.

After participating in regular workouts through July, Johnson kept going. And going, and going.

More than a month later, he accomplished his goal of shooting 20,000 free throws, making nearly 18,000.

"I'd shoot anywhere," he said. "Parks, any gym I could find."

Shooting up to 750 free throws a day might not be everyone's idea of fun. But for Johnson, who played at Notre Dame High, it was a way to keep his mind on the game.

With renewed focus, he has helped Santa Clara (14-3) get off to its best start in 20 seasons--since Kurt Rambis played for the Broncos.

The 6-foot-4 guard leads the West Coast Conference with an average of 2.1 steals per game and is on pace to break the school single-season record. He has increased his scoring average by four points from last season, to 11.1. He leads WCC guards with a 5.6 rebounding average.

And, perhaps most importantly, he's matured into a team leader.

"He realized a few shortcomings and tried to change them," Davey said. "Two years ago, he was only concerned about where he was going."

A team co-captain, Johnson's top priority is to help Santa Clara win a fourth consecutive WCC title and reach the NCAA tournament. The Broncos are in first place in the conference with a 5-0 record.

Santa Clara's defensive pressure, keyed by Johnson, has resulted in the Broncos forcing an average of 19.2 turnovers a game and leading the WCC with a plus-six turnover ratio.

"He's been one of, if not our best, defender this year," Davey said. "He goes aggressively to the ball and he anticipates really well. He's quick enough to help [teammates] in a hurry."

Johnson played a typically steady game against Pepperdine last Friday. He scored 11 points on four-of-five shooting, grabbed seven rebounds--five on the offensive end--and helped hold Gerald Brown, the Waves' leading scorer, to nine points and two-of-nine shooting before fouling out in the second half of Santa Clara's 77-71 victory.

Johnson smiled after the game when told of Brown's shooting numbers, but exhibited no trace of self satisfaction.

"I want to stay on an even pace," he said. "I'm not trying to do too much one night and not enough the next night."

Patience is a quality Johnson admittedly lacked when he arrived at Santa Clara in 1995 after playing at West Valley College in Saratoga for two seasons. He envisioned himself playing alongside Steve Nash, the Broncos' star guard who has gone on to the Phoenix Suns.

When it became apparent Johnson wasn't going to get much playing time, it was suggested he use a redshirt season. He reluctantly abided, but he simmered on the bench.

"I came with a big chip on the my shoulder," he said. "Nash was here and I wanted to play. I wanted to be on the court. I knew it was going to be a good team."

Instead, he watched Santa Clara win the WCC title and advance to the NCAA tournament, where the Broncos defeated Maryland in the first round. Meanwhile, Davey wondered if an unhappy Johnson would ever fit in.

"I'm not sure he wanted to be here and I'm not sure we wanted him," Davey said. "But since then, he's been a major part of our success."

Playing on championship teams has become a habit for Johnson. He helped Notre Dame win the Southern Section Division III-A title in 1993 and helped West Valley to a pair of conference titles and a state runner-up finish to Ventura in 1995.

Johnson grew up in Northern California and attended Archbishop Mitty High in San Jose until his senior year, when he moved in with his father, Curtis, in Northridge.

Johnson was a valuable addition at Notre Dame. In helping the Knights win their only section basketball title, he averaged 13.4 points and was selected to the All-Division III team and The Times' All-Valley second team.

"He gave us quickness at point guard that we did not have," said Mick Cady, who coached Notre Dame that season and is now the coach at San Fernando. "He was our most consistent outside shooter and he guarded the best player on the other team."

Cady said Johnson did a great defensive job in two Mission League games against Loyola, holding Toby Bailey, now of UCLA, under 20 points each time.

Johnson was part of a Notre Dame starting five that remains involved in athletics. Forward-center Monte Marcaccini plays at Virginia, Tom Stillwell plays volleyball for UCLA, Ryan Stromsborg is an infielder in the minor leagues and Glen Carson is a first baseman at Nevada.

"It was just fun," Johnson said of his year at Notre Dame. "From the second I got down there, I was making all new friends. It was almost a dream season."

He's working on another.

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