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Kelly Johnson

Edgewood's K.J. was team player first
Johnson will be first Edgewood girls player to enter ACBF HOF

Staff Writer

Second of a series...

Taking care of one's teammates, sometimes above one's own interests, to do what's ultimately best for the team is one of the marks of a great player.

Persons with those qualities usually carry them over into their lives and careers. It's what makes them valuable members of society.

When she was a standout three-sport athlete at Edgewood High School, Kelly Johnson was prized for not only her athleticism, but her unselfishness and great attitude. Even though she was counted upon by her coaches to be one of the driving forces for the Warriors, they also valued her for the ability to enable her teammates. She was a vital member of the volleyball, basketball and softball teams at Edgewood, eventually going on to earn the Northeastern Conference's D.J. Caton Outstanding Female Scholar-Athlete Award in 1982.

Another key aspect of Johnson's makeup was her humility. While she may have realized she had special athletic gifts, she shied away from considering herself better than her teammates. If there was a sport in which she felt particularly adept, it was softball, where she became one of the key components of the Warriors' drive to the NEC softball championship her senior year, the first conference title in a girls sport for Edgewood.

In fact, Johnson would say her most significant contributions were in softball. So when she was recently informed that she had been chosen for the 2009 class of inductees into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame, she was almost astounded.

"First of all, I'm flattered," the daughter of Don and Kay Johnson of Ashtabula said. "I know I had an excellent career, but of the three sports I played, I felt basketball was the least of them.

"I was taken completely by surprise when I was told. It is quite an honor."

Ask her high school basketball coach, Bob Callahan, about Johnson's impact on his teams and it comes into sharper focus why she is the first Edgewood girls player to be selected for the recognition. She will be one of 14 persons inducted on March 29 at 3 p.m. in ceremonies at the Conneaut Human Resource Center.

"She's among the top five players we had in scoring (615 points) and rebounding (413) and had more made foul shots than anybody during my 18 years of coaching," he said. "She was a good athlete with one of the smoothest jump shots around. She was second to Michelle Bean in scoring during my coaching career. She was a very good rebounder, too. She liked to make sure the other girls got involved, too.

"Kelly could play all five positions on the floor. We usually played her at forward, but she could handle the ball if we needed it."

Callahan pointed out that Johnson's numbers would have been even more impressive if she had been able to play four years of varsity basketball. But during her era, freshmen in Buckeye Local Schools were kept at Braden Junior High, so she didn't have an impact on the Warrior varsity until her sophomore year.

"I'm quite sure Kelly would have played on the varsity if she could have when she was a freshman," he said.

Most of all, Callahan admired Johnson for her work ethic and attitude.

"Kelly was a very coachable individual," he said. "She was so pleasant. She always seemed to have a smile on her face.

"Most times, she'd put in a lot of extra work off at one of the side baskets at the end of practice with her dad. They'd probably be out there at least an extra 15 or 20 minutes after practice."

It should also be noted that Johnson was a contemporary of some of the greatest girls players in the early years of the reinstatement of basketball to the Ohio High School Athletic Association program. She frequently ran into great players like Ashtabula's Diane Davis, Harbor's Roberta Cevera and Chris Fitting, Jefferson's Shellie Crandall and Geneva's Anita Tersigni, all previous inductees into the ACBF Hall of Fame. There were also fine teams in the NEC at Madison and Riverside.

Johnson is flattered to have her name mentioned in the company of such players.

"It means a lot of be associated with players of that caliber again," she said.

Callahan also noted that Johnson is in good company again.

"Kelly played in an era when there were many great players around here," Callahan said. "We had some great battles against Shellie Crandall and Donna Gregg at Jefferson. Whenever they chose teams, they always tried to make sure Kelly was on one side and Shellie was on the other.

"I think it means a lot that Kelly is the first Edgewood player to go into the Hall of Fame. She was a good athlete and a good person."

When she headed off to Kent State University after her graduation from Edgewood, Johnson thought she was going to get into a career in communications.

"I wanted to be a disc jockey," Johnson said.

But midway through her college days, Johnson happened across literature on the science of gerontology, or the study of all the aspects of life for the elderly.

Because she had been close to her grandparents and a number of older family members and friends, the idea of shifting her focus struck a responsive chord within her. Her desire to help other people, particularly senior citizens, resulted in changing her course of study and has been the driving force in her life right down to today.

She has been all over the Midwest since earning her degree in gerontology from Kent State in 1987. She earned a masters degree in human resource instruction from Central Michigan University in 1999.

In the past two years, Johnson has returned to her roots. She is the administrator at the Carington Park nursing facility on West Avenue in Ashtabula. She supervises 215 people in that capacity.

"Ashtabula County is a great place to live," the 45-year-old said. "I'm glad to be back here for my parents, plus I have two 91-year-old great aunts. And I love working with the people here."

The early years

Johnson got into sports early, experimenting a bit with basketball.

"I had a hoop at home that I asked for as a birthday present," she said. "We played a lot in our driveway."

But she really immersed herself in baseball early.

"I was the first girl in Ashtabula County to play Little League in the 11- and 12-year-old league," she said. "After I finished there, I still stayed around and kept score at the game."

Her first encounter with basketball other than at home came when she was a student at Ridgeview Elementary School.

"I heard about a foul-shooting contest and signed up for it with my friend, Linda Lutz," Johnson said. "We won it."

Then basketball went on the shelf until she entered the seventh grade. She stayed at it through the ninth grade.

"Gordon Balmford was our coach," Johnson said. "I'm sure he told Coach Callahan about me."

With the Warriors

Callahan tapped right into her skills once Johnson arrived at Edgewood. She was ready for the challenge.

"Kelly always came to play," he said. "She always gave it her best effort."

Johnson felt fortunate with the girls who were her teammates with the Warriors. They usually worked together in volleyball and softball, too.

"My teammates were girls like Kim and Val Jennings, Kim Coffman, Debbie Friend, Carol Budd and Lynne Silvieus," she said. "We had a lot of fun."

Johnson appreciated Callahan's approach to the game.

"It was nice to have a coach who was so cool and collected," she said. "It was nice to have someone who knew what you were capable of and how to utilize the talent.

"He was never in your face. The most you might get from him was a stern look. We were never afraid to go to our coaches (Jackie Hillyer in softball and the late Dave Cline for volleyball) if we had questions. I always felt I had a group of very level-headed coaches.

"Coach Callahan was always teaching," Johnson said. "He'd do whatever he could to help make you better. He led by example rather than temper."

Her father was the most influential coach in Johnson's life, though.

"My dad was always my coach," she said. "He was probably the most influential on me. My parents were always very supportive of me.

"He always tried to help me to be the best I could be. He was probably tougher on me than any of my high school coaches, but that was because he was trying to mine the best out of me."

Johnson knew she was up against quality opposition, too.

"I remember Shellie Crandall was such a fine, fundamentally sound all-around player," Johnson said. "Diane Davis was so quick. There was nothing you could do to defend her.

"Chris Fitting and Roberta Cevera were such a good guard-center combination. Anita Tersigni and Nadine Cox were so tough to play against. I remember when we played them when I was a sophomore. We always hoped the games went quickly and they had an off night."

Johnson's memory of specific games is hazy.

"The games against Jefferson always meant a lot," she said. "I remember playing in the Harbor Tipoff Tournament at Thanksgiving.

"I think I had a game against Conneaut or Riverside my senior year when I scored a lot of points. I remember playing in the tournament my senior year, I think against Poland."

Callahan has trouble remembering specific games, too, although he has a better memory of that tournament game.

"I remember her last game in the sectional tournament at Hubbard," he said. "That was when we were still in Division I (Class AAA at that time). We didn't get much respect back then.

"We played against Boardman and were down by quite a lot at halftime. Kelly scored 20 points and we ended up losing, 49-47. Boardman ended up getting to the district final."

The Star Beacon Senior All-Star Classic was one last memorable basketball occasion.

"I remember they put Kelly on one side and (Crandall) on the other," Callahan said. "Kelly led her team in scoring."

But Crandall's team won the game as she scored 35 points, still the girls scoring record for the game.

After Edgewood

Her experiences at Edgewood served Johnson well as she headed off to Kent State. She played four years of Division I softball at second base for Lori Fugelstad. It was quite a change.

"I went from playing a sport for three months to it becoming a job," Johnson said. "She was mostly calm, but you learned to listen to the coach. She was a big compromiser. We were probably between a .500 and a .750 club when I was there."

The move from communications to gerontology, more definitively described as the study of aging, proved to be a much more wide-ranging and exciting pursuit.

"You study about nutrition, social work and so many other facets," Johnson said. "It was very interesting. You never knew what you were going to learn."

As the oldest of three Johnson children, she had long ago learned to appreciate her older relatives. Most people in the area know the older of her two brothers, Mark, who has taken the family standard into the communications business as the chief meteorologist for Cleveland's WEWS, Ch. 5. He lives in Concord Township, while her younger brother, Sean, the senior electrical engineer for Cleveland's Osborne Engineering, resides in Jefferson.

"It was the greatest gift learning to deal with the issues older people face," she said.

Her path has to various senior health care agencies while earning her master's degree. Prior to taking over as administrator at Carington Park, she worked as a licensed social worker for the Life Care Centers of America facility in Avon Lake.

Johnson goes about her work at Carington Park with the same attitude Callahan said she carried onto the court, greeting patients and staff with a cheery smile, a pat on the back or a firm handshake. Every Friday, she brings her faithful pet, giant Labrador Hoodoo, who is named for a mountain in Yellowstone Park, to the facility to brighten the day of the residents and staff.

She does find herself falling back often on the lessons she learned in the athletic arena.

"It comes down to work ethic," Johnson said. "I think it has helped with my management style."

Johnson's job doesn't give her much time to check out the local sports scene, although she has caught an occasional basketball game.

"I think people were more passionate back in my day," she said. "It seems like there's more finesse than trying to take it to the hoop."

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