Since taking over as varsity boys’ basketball head coach at South High four seasons ago, Matt Johnsen winced each time he looked up to the rafters of the gymnasium. It’s not that he didn’t care for the look of the red and white felt cloths signifying championships in softball, wrestling, soccer, baseball and other sports, it was the blank section that was bothersome to him; not one boys’ basketball banner adorned the walls.
Johnsen will scowl no more as the Falcons made history by picking up their first conference and county titles in program history. “Every game, while the national anthem is playing, I look up to the flag and see that blank spot on the wall,” Johnsen said. “It’s just real special for the kids and for me to earn the first championship. Every night when I was ready to go to bed, I would put off sleeping and watch some more video. I knew the guys were giving that little extra each day on the court, so I had to do my part. If I went to bed, I would be letting them down.”
Despite knowing Nassau Class A would be a dogfight in 2013-14, Johnsen felt he had a team that could be the last one standing as early as this past summer. After a Cinderella run to the semifinals a year ago as the No. 11 seed in the 16-team tournament, and solid play in the offseason, Johnsen had reason to be confident with three senior guards and a couple of quality big men returning.
One of those big men was Dimitri Badette. The senior forward, who has averaged 11.5 points per contest in the postseason, credits his coach with preaching a basic tenet that led the team to the title. “We know we have some guys who can score a lot, but coach taught us to share the basketball,” Badette said. “It doesn’t matter who the leading scorer is as long as we win. He treats us all with a lot of respect, and really wants us to like and respect one another on and off the court. He cares.”
Senior guard William Knight shared Badette’s sentiment. “Coach Johnsen pushes us hard every day because he knows what we’re capable of,” Knight said. “Practices are tough, because coach wants to get the best out of us. He’s a great coach. He’s taught us to never give up no matter what the situation is. Just get out there, go hard, and persevere. It all paid off.”
And now, there’s a banner to prove it.