It would have been so easy for Maya Johnson to leave. Nearly everybody else did.
But Johnson refused to jump ship, and the Robbinsville High girls’ basketball program could have a nice future because of it.
Following an 11-15 campaign in 2017-18, the Ravens were hit by defections as a plethora of upperclassmen either transferred or decided not to return to the team. That left coach Joe Washington with seven freshmen, a few sophomores and Johnson – one of two juniors on a roster with no seniors. The other junior was Marieli Perez, who also served as co-captain and helped provide leadership.
The result was a 5-17 record entering the season finale with Willingboro, including five losses by six points or less. There were some who felt the Ravens would be lucky to win two games this year. With the entire team returning next year, hope reigns supreme at Robbinsville.
“To be able to have an off-season together in the spring, summer and fall is something we’re all looking forward to,” Washington said. “We didn’t have that last year.”
Much of that optimism centers around Johnson, who did an outstanding job of keeping a young unit together, rather than running helter-skelter on the floor without some sort of veteran presence.
“I was a little surprised when everybody left,” she said. “But I thought, ‘You know what, this is gonna be a good time for me to put my leadership skills into action.’ A few years before I could shy away from being the aggressor. But now it was my job to go and get us pumped and get us on the board. I knew we’d have our work cut out for us but I knew it would make us work so much harder and make us better in the long run.”
It certainly was a new experience for Johnson, a quality player with a hefty AAU resume.
“It’s one thing to win with people who were 16, 17, 18 and played with that level of physicality in a varsity game,” she said. “It’s another thing to play with someone who’s never seen high school varsity basketball. Even though these girls are really, really talented, until you experience some level of varsity basketball you can’t really picture what it’s like.”
Johnson has been a presence in the RHS lineup since she started high school, having either started varsity or played regularly all three years.
She brought a wealth of experience to the program. Johnson began playing rec ball at age 4 and joined the Philly Freedom Stars in 7th grade, right after her family moved to Robbinsville from Burlington City. She has also played AAU with the Mavericks, Sure Shots, Jersey Warriors and her current team, the Jersey Panthers.
She also played with good players who were her own age, which was also the case her first two years of high school. Allowed to learn and grow, Johnson averaged 6.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists as a freshman, and 7.5 points, 5.1 points and 2.7 assists as a sophomore.
This year was a whole new deal. If a teammate’s observation means anything, Johnson handled it in outstanding fashion.
“When I walked in the first day, Maya was giving me tips,” talented freshman Vanessa Sabol said. “She’s probably the best teammate I ever had. I’ve learned so much from her. I love her, she’s the best. You have to figure, everything is new to her too. She’s probably not used to playing with girls that don’t’ have much experience. She’s leading us, telling us what to do. She’s really helped mold us.”
She has been a godsend for Washington, whom Johnson calls “one of the best coaches I ever had.”
“He sees the game and how it works for us personally,” she said. “He knows what we’re feeling. He’s not trying to force something on us.”
Washington has similar praise for his leader.
“You really can’t say enough about her,” he said. “She’s a one-of-a-kind kid. It’s a different role for her than I’ve asked her to play in the past. She’s learning how to be a leader, she’s always leading by example. She’s learning to step into that communication role. She did a great job with the younger girls. Her patience was unbelievable. I never heard her get into it with somebody. She helps them out along the way. She’s constantly a positive role model.”
The added responsibility of looking out for others could wear on a player and take away from their game, but Johnson has continued to put up solid stats. She averaged 9.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.6 blocks per game while being asked to do pretty much everything.
And yet, her biggest contribution may have been the intangible of leadership, which she shared along with Perez.
“Marieli was a captain this year and constantly led by example for the younger athletes,” Washington said. “She is a player I have relied on the last two years to do the dirty work. She plays tough defense and will go get loose balls and rebounds.”
As for Johnson, the coach added, “ She learned that new role and she did a great job with the younger girls. We talked every day. We were really honest with our situation with everybody. Not having a senior, we were able to set goals not only for this year but next year as well. It’s not like we told somebody your season doesn’t matter. This season mattered. We played hard every day, there was no fear in any of them.”
Johnson set that fearless tone, starting on the defensive end. Her theory is that defense comes first because it demonstrates just how much hustle a player has.
“There aren’t a lot stats you’ll get for defense, but I feel the way to hone your game is to work hard, and defense is the best place to work hard,” she said.
As for wearing practically every hat a player can wear, Johnson welcomes the chance to be versatile. And she is going to do it at a breakneck pace.
“I will fight tooth and nail,” she said. “If somebody wants to get a lay-up they have to go through my block first.”
As rugged as she is on the court, Johnson is just as intelligent off it. She has a weighted grade point average of 4.513, has been her class president for three straight years and belongs to several school organizations.
“I just try to make sure I get my hand in a little bit of everything,” Johnson said. “I feel like I’m gonna play basketball in college, but if I can experience different things; I’ll become a better person because I’ll know how to interact with all different kind of people.”
Those skills certainly came into play this winter, when Johnson improved as a player and a leader, Through it all, she has gained a further self-awareness.
“Every day I learned something new about somebody or learned something new about myself,” she said. “It’s been little things we do that are so new that I’ve never had before on a team. It brings a smile to my face every day. I’m smiling when I walk into the gym. I want to be here.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Maya Johnson was the lone junior on the Robbinsville High School girls’ basketball team. Co-captain Marieli Perez is also a junior. The story has been updated to reflect this, and now includes a quote from head coach Joe Washington about Perez.