Sports

She wasn’t sure she wanted to play. Now freshman helping Merced College’s state run.

Merced College freshman Jada Johnson (22) drives to the basket during a game against Cabrillo College in Merced, Calif., on Saturday, March 9, 2019.
Merced College freshman Jada Johnson (22) drives to the basket during a game against Cabrillo College in Merced, Calif., on Saturday, March 9, 2019. sjansen@mercedsun-star.com

Merced College freshman Jada Johnson needs a push sometimes, a reminder just how good she can be on the basketball court when she puts her mind to it.

Her coaches and teammates are happy to provide encouragement when needed.

It seems hard to believe, but Johnson, who stands 6-feet tall, wasn’t sure she wanted to play basketball after high school. She was ready to focus on academics, but when she ultimately decided to go to Merced College, she decided she might as well play basketball.

Lady Blue Devils coach Allen Huddleston was elated.

“Playing in the state title game last year and being dominated like we were in the post, that was one of the first areas we needed to address,” Huddleston said. “We needed to get a post player to help us get to the next level. Jada has been so important to our success this year.”

Johnson and the Blue Devils (28-3) are trying to earn their way back to the state championship game. Merced College will face East Los Angeles (27-6) in the California Community College Athletic Association state quarterfinals on Friday at 1 p.m. at Ventura College.

Johnson’s late-season surge has played a big role in Merced College earning a share of the Central Valley Conference championship and a No. 2 seed in the Northern California Regional Playoffs.

Johnson was named to the all-CVC first team after averaging 10.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game this season. Down the stretch, Johnson averaged 16 points and 11.6 rebounds in the Blue Devils last 10 games.

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Merced College freshman Jada Johnsaon (22) attempts a jump shot over a Cabrillo defender during a game against in Merced, Calif., on Saturday, March 9, 2019. Shawn Jansen sjansen@mercedsun-star.com

Johnson came up with some big-time performances during conference play with 26 points and 18 rebounds in a win over Fresno City on Jan. 30 and then she followed that up with 28 points and 17 rebounds in a win at Porterville on Feb. 2.

“The biggest thing for her is being confident in her abilities,” Huddleston said. “You should see her in practice and some of things she does with our coaches in the post. She hasn’t even scratched the surface with some of the things she’s capable of doing.”

Johnson still had doubts basketball was for her in October.

“I didn’t know if I could trust the process,” she said. “I was struggling with it. I didn’t know if it was in me, especially because those practices in October were harder. The coaches and players pushed me in the right way.”

Johnson came to Merced College as a project out of Merced High where she averaged eight points last year. Her career high for the Bears was 15 points.

Johnson says the biggest difference is learning to be more aggressive on the court.

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Merced College freshman Jada Johnson (22) steps up to the free-throw line during a game against Cabrillo College in Merced, Calif., on Saturday, March 9, 2019. Shawn Jansen sjansen@mercedsun-star.com

“I think I have to be mentally tougher and be aggressive,” Johnson said. “I know now being aggressive is OK. They need that from me.”

Merced College will need a lot from Johnson in their matchup against East Los Angeles, which have five players on their roster listed 5-10 or taller. Freshman Jadis Watson stands 6-1 and averages 9.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

“They are the best offensive rebounding team we’ve faced all year,” Huddleston said. “They average 18 to 20 offensive rebounds per game. Jada’s going to have to play extremely well. One of their post (players) is about 6-1 (and) 230 pounds. It’s going to be extremely important that we keep Jada on the court and out of foul trouble so she can negate one of their post players.”

Johnson’s late-season surge suggests she’s ready for the challenge.

“I know everything I’m doing is paying off,” Johnson said. “Being needed and wanted makes going through all the hard work a lot easier.”

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