Valley’s Darius Johnson named Valley News Dispatch’s Boys Athlete of the Year

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Saturday, July 7, 2018 | 8:14 PM


Darius Johnson could use one of his best athletic attributes in all three of his sports. His leaping ability makes him a deadly deep threat in football, a high-flier in basketball and especially comes through in the high jump, his signature event in track and field.

But Johnson almost didn't get a chance to use that particular skill this spring, with a lingering ankle injury keeping him out of competition for much of the track and field season.

Then Johnson rose above. He defended his WPIAL Class AA championship in the high jump. Then, with a state title on the line, he leaped even higher — a personal-best 6 feet, 7 inches to claim his first individual state title at the PIAA championships in Shippensburg.

Overcoming injury was nothing new for Johnson in 2017-18. He battled a hand injury early in basketball season, returning to help Valley win a WPIAL playoff game for the first time since 2009 and reach the PIAA playoffs.

In football, Johnson caught four touchdown passes and also returned an interception for a score. But the younger — and yet, bigger — brother of former Valley star D'Aundre Johnson had a breakout football moment in the recent Westmoreland County Coaches Association Foothills Classic, catching eight passes for 151 yards as the top target of Pitt-bound Justin Sliwoski (Hempfield).

In about a month, Johnson will head to IUP to compete in both football and track and field, where he'll be joined by D'Aundre, a transfer from Westminster. But first, it may come as no surprise that Johnson rises above — yet again — to become the Valley News Dispatch's Boys Athlete of the Year.

Kiski Area wrestler Isaac Reid provided strong competition after overcoming a blood clot to win a PIAA wrestling title, but Johnson prevails over the heavyweight in a battle between state champions.

What was it like to accomplish a WPIAL and state title this year in high jump?

I have no words to explain how that was. I basically missed the whole season because I had an injury on my ankle. But on my days off, I would just sit there and go to the chiropractor or sit at home and ice it, (use) Epsom salt, try to get healthy. Then in a couple weeks I came back and I wasn't feeling well, but I still tried because coach told me to see how it feels. I took first, jumping 6-4. I wanted to do better, but I can't expect much when I'm injured like that and I don't want to reinjure it so I couldn't participate in states or WPIAL championships. When WPIAL championships came around, I was locked in, ready to go. I wasn't even thinking about my ankle because I had all this adrenaline. I'm the third-born son, and I don't like to lose, so that's how I like to look at it. I took first, and then I went on to states. The only people I had with me were (assistants Richard Bogaty and Al Rusiewicz and coach George Webb), but coach Webb couldn't make it. And also my mother; she's my No. 1 supporter. But she couldn't even make it to the meet. I'm up there basically by myself … none of (the coaches) are jumping coaches, so I did it all by myself by watching videos, taking some techniques that they would teach me and using it. I started at 6 foot, and I came in like last. I jumped 6 foot first try, then they raised the bar to 6-2, and I jumped that first try. Then 6-4, first try. Then 6-6, first try. I never had one of those days. It was like my best day ever. I can't really explain how I'm feeling.

What was your reaction when you got 6-7 to win the title?

I just looked up at the sky and started crying. I was so happy, and I was so shocked; I never thought I was going to jump 6-7. I don't even know the words for it.

How did you feel about your last football season at Valley?

It felt good, even though we didn't make the playoffs or anything. I did everything I could on my part. I was kind of mad we didn't make the playoffs, though. It was my last year. Everybody looked at me as the go-to guy in the wide receivers. In the one game, most of our stars got suspended from the Ellwood City game. So that took an L. But all in all, I think I did pretty good.

How about basketball?

I love basketball. I actually love basketball more than football, but I'm better at football. So we made playoffs and state playoffs last year. I was excited. It was a good season. We were better than last year and a couple years before that. Valley couldn't get anything to go in a couple years, and we actually turned the program around last year. I'd say it was a good season.

What it was it like to play on that team?

We had lots of fun. It was always fun in the locker room. We were always cracking jokes, dancing, making funny faces. The coaches were always dancing, too. And I got to meet a couple new people, too, so it was good to be around those guys. I'm going to miss them.

Who's the best dunker on the team?

I haven't seen anyone on the team dunk, for real. They've attempted to. I'm the only one that dunks consistently.

How's your summer going?

My summer's going good. I'm going out a lot, hanging out with my friends, working out with my brothers. That's pretty much it.

What are the biggest things you're working on?

I'm working on my technique. I'll go to the field here and there for football and stuff, do agility, a little bit of weightlifting. Some days I'll go heavy lifting, some days I'll go light. Then other days I'll work on my stamina. I mainly work on my legs a lot because of track. I jumped 6-7 this year for states. I'm trying to go higher.

How much are you looking forward to college?

It's exciting. I can't wait. I'm ready for the next season to come. I'm doing everything I can to get better than what I am now, and I think I have a lot of footsteps to fill.

What can we expect from you this year? Do you think you'll play as a freshman?

To be honest, I don't know, but whenever I get in and I get my opportunity, I'm going to make the best of it so I can get more opportunities.

You can definitely catch some jump balls.

Yes, sir. They look at me as a deep threat. That's the first word they told me.

How competitive are you and older brother D'Aundre?

(We compete in) everything. Whenever he started playing football at a young age, I would just sit in the stands because I wasn't old enough to play and I'd just watch him play. I'd be like, I want to be like him. I don't want to be like him anymore. Now that I'm older, I want to be better. So everything we do is competitive. From sports to 2K or Madden. I hate losing to him.

Did you look up to any athletes?

I'd say Antonio Brown. Because I just like everything about him: his lifestyle, how he influences other people. He makes a big impact on a lot of kids. And then the stuff he came from when he was younger, it inspired me to do better. He came out of the slums just like me. I'm around the hood area. I hear gunshots almost every day. My goal is to get my family out of the hood and take them to where they want to be.

Do you want to be the same type of role model that he is for you?

Yes, sir. I want to be able to make a statement, and I want to be able to get my word out to change somebody's life.

You talked about following in footprints. Was there anyone in particular you're thinking of?

Well, D'Aundre has big shoes. Not technically — he has small feet because he's little — but I'd say he has big shoes because he's always been better than me. I'm trying to catch up. He's stronger, he's faster. He's way stronger than me and just a little bit faster than me, and he's quicker. If I was like his height and able to do the stuff that he does, then I'd be better than him because I'm taller and I can jump higher. There's a couple of shoes he has that I can't fit yet. Say the whole team's coming at him, he's able to weave in and out of people low and quick and deliberate. I want to be better than him.

How much confidence did you get out of the Foothills Classic?

It was crazy. (Quarterback Justin Sliwoski) didn't come until the day of the game, and I'm like, “Who's that?” … We were kind of connected before the game. I don't know how that happened, but we were clicking like that. When I ran that slant-and-go, he put the ball right on the money on my outside shoulder. I almost scored and got tripped up, but it was still a good play. And it was happening all game. They just tried to switch corners on me, and he was still putting the ball where it needs to go. It was like we were partners before that.

Do you have a favorite sports team?

I don't really. I'd say the Cavs when LeBron was there, but I'm a LeBron fan, so I go where he goes.

So you're a Lakers fan now?

Yeah, basically. I didn't want him to go there, though. I wanted him to go to Houston. You heard about DeMarcus Cousins going to the Warriors, right?

What do you think about that?

Oh, my God — that's crazy! Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins? Five stars! They're trying to create a super team to not let LeBron do his thing, but he's still doing his thing. But he needs help. For him to go to the Lakers, it's like, “What are you doing?”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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