Mt. Pleasant athletes etched names in school’s record books

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Friday, May 15, 2020 | 4:36 PM


Editor’s note: This is the 13th in an 18-part series profiling nominees for the Westmoreland County Scholar-Athlete Excellence Awards.

They will be remembered for big plays — splash plays, even — from their thrilling prep careers at Mt. Pleasant.

Heather Gardner and Jake Johnson were headliners.

But mention their names in the future, and people might immediately think of school records.

The pair of Westmoreland County Scholar-Athlete Excellence Awards nominees will graduate with a close connection to the Vikings record books. In fact, more than a dozen program marks were broken by either Gardner in swimming or Johnson in basketball and football over the last three-plus years.

Gardner points are used to break ties for playoff spots in WPIAL football. At Mt. Pleasant, Gardner points helped lead the Vikings to a section title last year.

But how about those records? Gardner, a six-time WPIAL champion — three titles each in the 50-yard freestyle and 100 breaststroke — has program marks in the 200, 100 and 50 freestyles and the 100 backstroke, 200 individual medley and 100 breast.

She also swam legs of record-setting 200 medley, 200 freestyle and 400 freestyle relay teams.

“I am very proud of myself for each and every one of them,” Gardner said of the records. “Each record has an important memory behind it that I will always remember.”

Johnson, meanwhile, was a standout in basketball and football. This season, he set a single-game scoring mark on the court with 43 points. (He also had 40 against WPIAL champion and freshman star Rodney Gallagher.)

He established football records for single-season (43) and career (64) pass receptions and career receiving yards (1,325).

He had 43 grabs as a junior before moving to running back and rushing for 1,102 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior, including a 201-yard game against Burrell.

Johnson was asked if he has been watching “The Last Dance,” the ESPN documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls of 1997-98, and if he ever had to lead vocally like Jordan did in practices and games.

“The most important thing to me is being a good teammate,” said Johnson, who will play basketball at Saint Vincent. “Sometimes you have to be the bad guy, though, if you want to lead.

“I think the things Mt. Pleasant fans will remember is the hard work I put into being the player I am today and being a leader on and off the court by doing the right things.”

With 1,161 points, “JJ” ranks fifth on Mt. Pleasant’s all-time scoring list for basketball. He scored 32 career TDs in football.

Gardner was set to compete in the PIAA championships in March at Bucknell and was a favorite to bring home gold, but she received word during the event that the finals would be canceled and everyone would be sent home because of the then-budding coronavirus pandemic.

Her training has been affected as she makes inroads to a Division I college career at Liberty.

“I started doing dryland (workouts) and whatnot whenever they told us that states was going to be rescheduled,” she said. “But since they officially canceled it, I am taking a little break so I can get my mind back where it’s supposed to be mentally.”

Gardner and Johnson each rank in the top 50 out of 143 seniors academically.

Other athletes do not envy swimmer’s schedules. Visits to the pool before the sun comes up and classes begin are a regular occurrence. Not to mention the after-school training, prep for meets and the meets themselves.

“I actually do cyberschool when high school swim season is in,” Gardner said. “That gives me time to do schoolwork in the morning, lift around noon and then go to practice. It helps me not be as stressed with classes and training.”

Johnson said attention to academics was taught to him at a young age.

“My parents told me that athletics would only take me so far,” he said, “and I have to prepare for the life I want after athletics.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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