Knoch senior upbeat despite disappointing ending to long rehab road

Friday, May 1, 2020 | 5:38 PM

James Johnston was ready.

The Knoch senior, a cornerstone of the Knights boys lacrosse team, did all he could to be 100% prepared for spring practices and games with several months of recovery from a severe lower left leg and ankle injury suffered during the football season.

He was pleased to get back on a field for competition.

But the season that held so much optimism and hope for Johnston and his teammates was over before it started with the statewide school closures in March and the subsequent cancellation of all spring sports events by the PIAA.

“The excitement level was through the roof because we had been to the playoffs the past couple of years, and with myself and the other two seniors (Matt Goodlin and Maison Frank), we wanted to make one final run at it and see where the team could go,” Johnston said. “You could definitely tell we were coming together and forming a team.

“It’s tough not having my senior year, but all my work wasn’t for nothing. I’m still healthy and able to go out and run and do other things. I worked for that, and I am happy with where I am at.”

Johnston, who scored a game-winning goal in overtime to help Knoch rally past rival Freeport last year, helped the Knights reach the WPIAL boys lacrosse playoffs for the third year in a row. Knoch suffered a first-round loss to No. 6 North Hills in the 2019 tournament but had earned spots in the quarterfinals in 2017 and 2018.

“He suffered a pretty traumatic injury, and while he was looking good in preseason workouts, we didn’t want to take any chances,” Knoch coach Nathan Barthlow said.

“He’s one of the guys who wants to hop in right away and help the team, but he was smart about everything in his recovery. Right before the season cancellation, you could tell he was in full form. Last season, he grew every game, and his lacrosse IQ kept getting stronger. I expected him to be one of our leading scorers this season.”

Knoch football coach Brandon Mowry said Johnston’s no-nonsense efforts in preparing for the lacrosse season was no different than how he approached the football season. Johnston was a two-way starter — at running back and outside linebacker — and also was a part of several special teams units.

His season came to an end Sept. 20 during a 34-6 Northwest Eight Conference win at Ambridge. As Knoch was driving deep in Ambridge territory, Johnston took a pitch left and eyed the end zone. When a group of defenders descended, he went down and knew something was wrong.

“I was in for Matt (Goodlin), who had tweaked his ankle in the first half,” Johnston said. “My foot got stuck in the turf, and I got rolled up on.”

Johnston suffered a broken and dislocated ankle, significant breaks to both his tibia and fibula and ligament damage.

“As soon as it happened, I remembered thinking, ‘Wow, my season could be done right here,’” he said. “When I got up on the stretcher, my teammates all came over. They were emotional. It was a pretty emotional experience all around.”

“When he went down that night in Ambridge, we had to shuffle some guys around and try to adjust,” Mowry said. “Those kids stepped up and did a good job, but it’s really hard to replace a guy like Jim.”

At the hospital that night, Johnston’s leg and ankle were stabilized. Surgery a few days later repaired the damage with plates, screws and wires holding everything in place.

“I got a lot of hardware in my lower leg,” he said

Johnston was on crutches and in a cast for several weeks, and he soon returned to school. Despite the personal hardship, he made sure to keep up a presence at both practices and games.

“That was everything to me because I had played with these guys ever since first grade,” Johnston said. “My teammates are like family. They felt the pain I was going through. I had to show them that I was going to be OK, and that we were going to move forward together.”

Rehab and recovery, starting in November, consisted of a lot of stretching and getting range of motion back in his healing ankle. He also worked to build back strength in his calf muscle.

“My doctor was pleased with how everything healed,” Johnston said.

At an appointment with his doctor near the end of January, the ball got rolling on a return to full activities with no restrictions in preparation for the lacrosse season.

“I was already running on the track and continuing a lot of stretching exercises to get the leg back to what it was,” Johnston said. “My doctor sent me to get a pass-to-play test, and I passed that night and was ready to go.”

“We all knew he was going to push it as hard as he could to be ready for the spring,” Mowry said.

Johnston will attend Allegheny College, and he is still undecided on a major. While athletics at the next level currently aren’t in the picture, he said he might give consideration to the Gators men’s lacrosse team, a young program that was in its third season this spring.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at or via Twitter .


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