Jennifer (Johnston) Horner
Horner was Conneaut's Ms. 999
One shy of 1,000 points for her career, forward was still a star for Spartans
By Chris Larick
For the Star Beacon
Reaching the 1,000-point plateau is considered a great achievement in high school basketball.
But what about players who wind up with 999 points in their careers? Not so much.
That's why it's difficult to find Conneaut's Jennifer (Johnston) Horner's name on the list of prolific scorers in Ashtabula High School basketball history.
Yes, she missed by a single point, perhaps because no one realized exactly how close she was to the mark.
"I thought I was close," said Horner, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation's Hall of Fame on April 12 at the Conneaut Human Resources Center.
"I didn't know I needed one more point at the tournament game at Edgewood. I missed some free throws; I should kick myself in the butt."
Horner belongs to a more select sorority of scorers, anyway. How many players can say they scored exactly 999 points in their high school careers?
And besides, she accumulated 1,024 rebounds for the Spartans, so she hit the magic number in a category that is probably more difficult.
Horner's earliest athletic memories are of tee-ball at the CLYO, with her parents (Duane and Michele Johnston) urging her on.
JENNIFER (JOHNSTON) HORNER scored 999 points during her career with the Conneaut Spartans
JENNIFER (JOHNSTON) HORNER with her family
"My parents were the type who wanted me to play everything," Horner remembers. "I tried out for so many things, including Penny Armeni's dance school at the (Conneaut) Community Center."
At least partially because of her height (she reached 6-1 or 6-2 in high school), Horner gravitated toward basketball.
Spartans' girls basketball coach Tom Ritari, certainly no dummy, took notice of Horner early at his basketball camps in the summer.
"I played in the elementary and middle school programs," she said. "All my friends were part of it. It had a community feel."
She recalls that it was a "big deal" when she tried out for the Rowe Middle School team. By the time she was in the eighth grade, Ritari invited her to practice with the high school team during open gym in the fall. She also played in the Perry summer league program.
"That's when I really got hooked," she said. "It became my passion. All my efforts were related to basketball."
Also in the summer of the eighth grade, she developed her skills with other teens at the Conneaut Township courts.
"Mia Lytle and I would ride our bikes there," she said. "That was very important to our development as players. You can learn a lot more playing with boys than girls sometimes.
"When the park was closing, the park guys would ask us to move our cars to the other side of the street, but they let us keep playing until the lights shut off around 11."
When Horner reached high school, she became an immediate starter as a freshman. Through her four years there she played with a group that included Tara Church, Mary Beth Herb, Katie Fails and Gretchen Showalter, Melissa Vogler, Melissa Anderson and Erica Wallace. Perhaps the best teams of the four years occurred when Jessica Olmstead moved up to Conneaut High School when Horner was a junior.
"Those were two of my favorite years," Horner said. "(Olmstead) was so much fun to play with. She made such perfect passes. The years Jessica and I played together we were more competitive. We definitely relied on my rebounding. We were a passing team with good wings to get you the ball. The points came."
Playing center, Horner always strove to be the strongest player on the floor.
"I made the team on defense," she said.
"Our team goal was never to lose to Edgewood. Madison, I remember, was very strong. They had some very good players. High school rivalries were always fun, friends competing against each other. The county itself was neat to grow up in."
Horner considers Ritari and his wife, Mo, a second family.
"The Ritaris, my Aunt Mo and Uncle Tom, played an integral role in introducing sports to me and supporting my journey from the time I could make my first basket to the day I got to play in the NCAA tournament," she said. " I must say one of the absolute highlights of my career was finally beating Coach Ritari at a game of one-on-one at Garcia Gymnasium. We played often, and I could never beat him. Then one day after practice my senior year… I won with a baby hook shot he taught me. But that's not the best part – immediately after that shot, Coach took the ball and heaved it to the rafters in a moment of what I would call half 'proud coach' and half 'I just got beat by a girl' emotion. The ball sat in the heating vent on the side of the wall for years until the gym was renovated – that trophy was better than a banner if you ask me."
In basketball Horner twice gained first team All-Conference honors, second team All-District and honorable mention All-State accolades. When she graduated she was both Conneaut's rebounding and scoring leader.
Horner also competed in track for Conneaut, and starting in her sophomore year, in cross country. She graduated as a school record-holder in the shot put, discus, 4x400 and 4x800, helping lead the Spartans to a Northeastern Conference crown in 1999.
"Coach Ritari convinced me to run cross country for conditioning," she said.
Horner was always an outstanding student, and, with a 4.0 GPA (the highest a Conneaut student could achieve at the time), became one of eight valedictorians.
"We were a very talented class," she said.
She could have gone to any college she wanted and considered Army, Navy, Columbia, Colgate, Ball State and some Chicago schools. She eventually chose Dartmouth, an Ivy League school in Hanover, New Hampshire.
"It was my last official visit and my first plane ride," she said. "I had gone to the Blue Star Basketball Camp in Terre Haute, Indiana. Players come from all over the place and there are a lot of scouts there."
Horner played three years for the Big Green.
"Their mascot is a giant inflatable moose," she laughed. "It's in the wilderness. But they have a good library. That's where I spent my time.
"It was neat because the place was loaded with talent. The people there are unique and talented, destined for something really special."
Though Dartmouth is very expensive, Horner's scholarships covered most of her expenses.
As a freshman Horner saw action in 15 games and saved her best game of the season for the NCAA Tournament when she scored four points and grabbed three rebounds in 16 minutes of solid play against the defending national champions.
In her sophomore year (2000-2001) Horner appeared in 17 games, including nine as a starter, averaging 2.1 points and 2.0 rebounds per game, in addition to blocking 14 shots in just 17 games. Her career-best game came against Colgate, when she scored 10 points, five points and six blocked shots.
Horner majored in sociology with a fine arts minor.
"Dartmouth is one of those liberal arts schools that teaches you how to learn," she said. "They want people to leave Dartmouth and get more schooling.
With that in mind, Horner headed to Chicago after her 2003 graduation and took her master's at the University of Chicago-Columbia with the intention of becoming a teacher.
"My friend and I wanted to be in a big city," she said."I loved (Chicago). I met my husband while I was there, met him in MIlwaukee. I had a handful of jobs while I was there, jobs in insurance and physical therapy."
She did her student teaching in Chicago, but there were no openings when she finished, so she looked elsewhere, finally settling on Charlotte, N.C., where she taught two years (2010-2012).
Two-and-a-half years ago the Horners moved to Buffalo. After doing some substitute teaching, she began working as an education specialist for Doodle Bug!, a company specializing in early childhood eduction.
"We provide support for teachers," she said. "I love it because I love writing curriculum for the schools there. It's like coaching in the classroom.
"Early childhood is an entirely different world. I didn't expect to be a part of it, but the more I learn about it, the more I like it."
Tim, whom she married in Buffalo in 2012, works as a product manager at the Brady Corporation in Buffalo, a company that makes safety equipment. The couple has a son, Sean, who was born July 8, 2013.
"I don't play a lot of sports now, but I still enjoy a good pickup game (of basketball) in the park," she said. "I did that a lot in Chicago."
"My folks, my big brother Jeremy and my little sister Jessica all played a part in helping me grow," Horner said. "Even though my parents weren't athletes themselves, they were immensely supportive and so proud of everything I set out to accomplish. They made sure there was always a hoop in the driveway – even if we were dribbling in the limestone and smashing the tulips.
"I'm certainly blessed in so many ways. God gave me the athletic talent, drive, and a family and community that helped me become successful. It's amazing how much a community can influence a young person's life. So many people played a part in helping me develop as an young athlete and a person and I am forever grateful."
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.