Growing up in Minnesota, Matthew Johnson never got a chance to play in the high school state basketball championships.
A little more than a year removed from college, though, he got to experience the next best thing.
In his first season at the helm of the Soldotna boys, Johnson, merely 25 years old, not only guided the Stars to the Northern Lights Conference championship game, but also led them on an unexpected journey to their first ever Class 4A state championship game a week ago before losing an overtime thriller to Dimond.
"You appreciate the opportunity to make it to the state tournament," said Johnson, who was recently named the Anchorage Daily News/Alaska Media Class 4A boys coach of the year. "I never was fortunate enough to make it to the state tournament. I kind of got to fulfill that dream as a coach.
"It's been a dream year for me coaching the kids," he added. "For a first year of coaching, coaching the kids I got to coach and the coaches I got to coach with, it really couldn't have worked out any better."
Also honored as all-state selections were Soldotna seniors Matt Grubb, Liam Andrus and Zayan Aberkane, Nikiski seniors Eliza Chadwick and Rachel Romans and Seward senior Robert Perea.
But Johnson was the most unpredictable of the group.
Arriving on the scene after graduating in 2007 from the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., Johnson volunteered with the girls program last season before being named the head coach of the SoHi boys varsity squad entering the 2008-09 campaign.
And despite it being his first head coaching stint, it didn't take long for him to taste success.
After going 18-3 during the regular season, Soldotna lost by two to Wasilla in the NLC title game. Then the season really took a surprising turn.
Not happy just qualifying for the state tournament for the first time since 2001, the Stars dominated Lathrop in the first round, earned a come-from-behind win over the Warriors in the semifinals and then turned in one of the guttiest state championship performances in recent memory, losing by just three points despite having a trio of senior starters foul out.
"I don't think any coach would say anything other than great players make coaches look all right," Johnson said. "I think that's the case.
"Those three were a huge asset to me," he added of assistant coaches William Withrow, Nick Christensen and Doug Blossom. "I can't thank them enough for the help they gave me this year, too."
Andrus said Johnson was a major reason why the team accomplished what it did.
"For such a young guy he did an unbelievable job with us," he said.
At first, however, Andrus was skeptical.
"I didn't really have any confidence in him cause I didn't know him," he said. "As soon as I saw all the offseason stuff we did ... and he actually cared about it, after that I was in full support of him and he didn't let us down."
Andrus said the offseason weightlifting program played a vital role, too, as did Johnson's confidence in the team.
"He told us we were going to beat Wasilla. He was in full support of us," Andrus said. "He knew what we were capable of, and I guess he was right."
Johnson also knew he had the talent. A trip like they had, though, was as unpredictable as the weather.
"I had been around the kids to know they were talented enough to make a run at it. I don't know if you can ever anticipate making the kind of run we made," he said. "The kids were absolutely great this year and a pleasure to coach. I think they came a long ways, not only as basketball players, but as young men."
So much so that Andrus wishes Johnson had been there earlier.
"I wish I would have had him all three years," he said. "If he wants to stay at SoHi, he's probably going to have a position there as long as he wants. I don't think anyone's going to kick him out of there for a long time."
Johnson returned the compliments to his players.
"All year long he's been our leader," he said of Grubb, the Stars' point guard who was a second-team, all-state selection after averaging 15.3 points per game at state. "He earned that by putting the hours he put in in the offseason. His teammates really looked to him as a leader and he embraced it. He earned it and that was the biggest thing."
Andrus nabbed honorable-mention honors after averaging 15 points and 6.3 rebounds in three state contests.
"Liam's a horse. I think he's as good of a big man as there is in the state as far as what I had seen," Johnson said. "He's a kid that came a long ways this year and made great improvements. Matt and Liam are two guys that without them, we wouldn't have gotten where we did."
Aberkane, who came off the bench, pulled down 10 crucial rebounds during the state championship game in also earning honorable-mention accolades.
"The greatest compliment you can give Zayan is he is a winner. ... He's been a big part of their football state championships," Johnson said of the SoHi quarterback. "Winning is what he's done and it's cause he's such a fierce competitor.
"He was asked to take a role of coming off the bench this year and he never complained. ... He just stepped up and gave us a spark when we needed it."
Chadwick, a second-team selection, and Romans, named to the honorable-mention squad, helped lead the Bulldogs to a 20-7 season and a fifth-place finish in the Class 3A state tournament.
"Well deserved. She's worked hard all of her career at Nikiski and has earned everything she's got," Bulldogs coach Ward Romans said of Chadwick. "To be named to the second team is quite an achievement and I couldn't be prouder.
"She always played her heart out. She finished her career off on a high note at state and played really well on both ends of the floor and led us."
Romans, Rachel's father, said both players were a coach's dream.
"They emulate the things we value in our program -- family, hard work and caring about each other," he said. "Both of them have done that their whole career."
Perea was the same way in Seward.
Averaging close to 21 points, 11 rebounds and five assists a game throughout the season, Perea was named to the first team after propelling the Seahawks to a fifth-place finish.
"He put in a ton of time in the offseason. Then he was just our go-to guy late in the game," Seward coach Dan Krier said. "I thought he showed a lot of character all year long.
"The reason why he was so successful was even when he would have a bad spurt in a game, he never changed expression on the floor," he added. "I think that's a real attribute for our younger kids to learn from."
Even when the Seahawks trailed Nome by 18 points with two minutes left in the third quarter of a state semifinal, he never gave up.
Perea spearheaded a 19-0 run, 12 of those coming from him, that handed Seward its first lead of the game before eventually losing a two-point heartbreaker.
"He makes everybody around him better," Krier said. "He's not a glory hound by any means, not anywhere near it. He is a scorer, he's a gym rat, he's a gamer and yet he'll hit the open guy when he's there."
Krier, who also had senior Dylan Beck on the honorable-mention team, said when driving home from state, Perea asked if the gym was open the following night.
"The season was over. He played his heart out in three games and still he was ready to go back to the gym to play," he said. "He just has all the good qualities that it takes to be a good team player and a good leader."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anchorage Daily News/Alaska
Media All-State Basketball Teams
Class 3A Boys
Player of the Year -- Leif Karlberg, Grace Christian.
Coach of the Year -- Patrick Callahan, Nome.
Leif Karlberg, Grace Christian, 6-1 sr; Jesse Blandford, Nome, 5-11 sr; Robert Perea, Seward, 6-2 sr; Michael Stepovich, Monroe Catholic, 6-6 sr; Kevin Rima, Hutchison, 6-6 jr.
Jeremy Head, Nome, 6-1 jr; Jeremiah Ridgeway, Heritage Christian, 5-10 jr; Yuri Tibbs, ACS, 6-3 sr; Jonathan Mazzella, Petersburg, 5-9 sr; Jordan Birchell, Petersburg, 6-6 sr.
Cole Daniels, Hutchison; Justin Sanders, Barrow; Keenen Mays, Hutchison; Colten Growden, Eielson; Dylan Beck, Seward; Jonathan Millar, Heritage Christian; Ben Snow, Hutchison; Tyler Adams, Barrow; Christian Osentoski, Bethel.
Class 3A Girls
Player of the Year -- Anna Simmers, ACS
Coach of the Year -- Daniel Skipworth, ACS
Anna Simmers, ACS, 5-10 sr; Chelsea Dyson, ACS, 5-5 sr; Nicole Smith, Barrow, 5-4 so; Debbiey Simmers, ACS, 5-11 jr; Charlea Kewan, Mt. Edgecumbe, 5-11 sr.
Eliza Chadwick, Nikiski, 5-4 sr; Jubilee Sutherland, Glennallen, 5-5 jr; Lainey Beaver, Mt. Edgecumbe, 5-7 jr; Leisha Trani, Sitka, 5-6 jr; Adrienne Beans, Galena, 5-6 sr.
Sharee Miller, Eielson; Virginia Bobbit, Dillingham; Kira Polk, Bethel; Lexy Seifert, Barrow; Elena Bartman-Wallman, Dillingham; Heather Gallohorn, Kotzebue; Sydnee Falkner, Glennallen; Tricia Ivanoff, Mt. Edgecumbe; Kathryn Medinger, Sitka; Rachel Romans, Nikiski.
Class 4A Girls
Player of the Year -- Jenna Johnson, Wasilla
Coach of the Year -- Tracy Adams, Chugiak
Jenna Johnson, Wasilla, 5-9 sr; Allie Grazulis, Colony, 5-11 sr; Lorrie Clifford, Chugiak, 5-8 sr; Laci Effenberger, Ketchikan, 5-7 jr; Alex Coon, Colony, 5-10 sr.
Keiahnna Engel, Dimond, 5-7 so; Tessla Rennie, West, 5-11 jr; Emily Watzke, Chugiak, 5-9 jr; Liz Meddaugh, Chugiak, 5-10 sr; Kelsey Cottle, Wasilla, 6-4 so.
Katie Anderson, Dimond; Alexis Sayer, Chugiak; Katie Oates, West Valley; Crystal Blair, Ketchikan; Shelby Barton, West Valley; Mikaela Bolling, Palmer; Kara Larson, Colony; Bobbie Britt, Service; Lindsay Murphy, Chugiak; Adrina LaVern-Tosi, West.
Class 4A Boys
Player of the Year -- Colton Lauwers, Dimond
Coach of the Year -- Matthew Johnson, Soldotna
Colton Lauwers, Dimond, 6-4 sr; Chris Plooy, Dimond, 6-5 sr; Tom Feeney Jr., West, 6-2 jr; Ryan Hanley, Dimond, 6-3 sr; Damon Sherman-Newsome, Bartlett, 6-3 so.
John Palmer, Colony, 5-10 jr; Mike Russell Jr., West, 6-2 sr; Matt Grubb, Soldotna, 5-10 sr; Eric Gross, Juneau, 6-4 sr; Adrese LaVern, Wasilla, 6-2 sr.
Liam Andrus, Soldotna; Justin Kauffman, West; Tevin Timberlake, East; Zayan Aberkane, Soldotna; Travis Thompson, Dimond; Bryce Jacobson, Colony; Mitch Swetzof, Palmer; John Knowles, Wasilla; A.J. Banks, East; Courtney May, Bartlett.
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