The Saugerties High School boys’ varsity basketball team is 2-5 this season, a relatively young team that’s still trying to find its rhythm. The Sawyers are expected very soon to get a shot in the arm before January with the return of freshman point guard Dior Johnson, one of the few players capable of causing a significant impact just by coming home from Florida and playing.
Johnson, who played two varsity seasons as a Sawyer before accepting an offer to play at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida for his freshman season, opted to come back home earlier this month. He re-enrolled at Saugerties High and is preparing himself to step onto the court in the familiar blue-and-white. If not for the customary red tape, he might have already played his first games back in Saugerties.
“All we’re waiting for is the paperwork from IMG to return,” said Saugerties coach Mike Tiano. “When you transfer back to a school you have to have the head of the school, the athletic director and the coach all sign off that you were leaving the school in a good academic standing. Once we get that signature he’ll be cleared.”
There was a lot of speculation about Johnson’s return, including whether he’d play for Saugerties or for another school in the area. Tiano said he never had any doubts about Johnson wanting to play again for the Sawyers. After speaking to Johnson and his mother, the return was confirmed.
“I think it was just talk,” Tiano said of Johnson considering other local schools, including Kingston High. “He’s very popular across the section. When you have the reputation that he earned over the last two years, he’s followed by a lot of different people across the country.”
Saugerties was the only place he was going to go. He’s got family in Kingston. Some Kingston kids were trying to say he was going to go there. But there was zero chance of that ever happening. His mom said all along that if he did come home, or when the time was right for him to come home, he was going to be back in Saugerties.
Johnson himself teased the news on Twitter before confirming it with a tweet on Tuesday, December 18, that contained a photo of himself in his Sawyer uniform and one word, all caps: BACK.
A lack of consistency
Johnson averaged 31.1 points, 3.5 steals, 3.1 assists and 4.6 rebounds last season, helping lead the team to the Section IX, Class A title game. Johnson amassed 1098 points in two seasons of varsity basketball at SHS, becoming the youngest-ever boys’ basketball player to cross the 1000-point threshold in New York State history. Johnson has already gotten offers from 16 NCAA Division I schools to play point guard when he graduates high school in 2022.
Now basketball fans are wondering when and where Johnson will play in the nearer future. It’s likely to be at the Shawn Walsh Memorial Basketball Tournament at Burnt Hills High School on December 27-28. In addition to the hosts, the Queensbury Spartans and Averill Park Warriors will also be competing. His first home game back might be against New Paltz on Friday, January 4, a rematch of the 2018 Section IX, Class A title game, won by the Huguenots in triple overtime.
Other teams are also keeping a careful eye on the proceedings. FDR declined to postpone the game against Saugerties on Tuesday, December 18 to allow for Tiano to recover from a bout of the flu. The Presidents won that game 63-45, handing the Sawyers their fourth straight loss.
“I tried to get the games moved this week because of my having the flu, and the other teams refused to do it because they thought I was doing it because of Dior,” said Tiano. “This is my twelfth year coaching and this was the first game I’ve ever not coached, which was frustrating in itself. But if this had happened pre-Dior returning, I think the other coach would have moved the game no problem. Since he’s returning, now other teams don’t want to try and game-plan against him, let along having to game-plan against him twice.”
For a Sawyer team yet to hit its stride, Johnson’s anticipated return will be most welcome. The team’s struggles have been less a lack of effort than a lack of consistency, which along with a relative dearth of varsity experience on the roster has yielded on-court lapses and losses.
“We’re playing hard,” said Tiano. “Out of the 32 minutes, we’re probably playing somewhere between 20 to 25 minutes of good basketball, and then those last eight to twelve minutes have been the problem and why we’ve lost five games now.”
A different feeling in the room
In addition to having to figure out how to play without Johnson, the Sawyers also lost 2017-18 starters Austin Curlin and Tavin Rell to graduation.
“One of the big things going into this year with this group was they really didn’t know how to win,” Tiano said. “They would watch Dior last year and Austin Curlin and Tavin Rell, who when the game got close, those guys would kind of rally around each other, step up and make sure that we would win.
“I’m returning from last year to this year in essence two players with a lot of varsity experience, Liam Schoonmaker and Caleb Edwards. After that there were some role guys, like Ryan Whitaker got some minutes last year, Nick Smith got some minutes last year. But there really weren’t a lot of minutes to be played because of how good the seniors were at that point.
“First day of practice, it was all new. There was a different feeling in the room about what they would have to do to be a good team, and what they’d have to do to win. And that’s what we’ve had to focus on, not necessarily the wins and losses but breaking down what we’re doing well and what we need to improve upon to get these victories down the stretch.”
Tiano said Schoonmaker, who has led the Sawyers in scoring in most of their games thus far, is slowly evolving into a team leader. “He has taken that role on, not necessarily by choice,” Tiano said. “He wants to be a leader, he wants to be a player they go to. He’s learning himself how to really be that leader. I think as the season goes on he’s going to improve with that pressure that gets added to it as a leader when games are tight and a play needs to be made. He’s improving daily in what he does.”
Schoonmaker and the Sawyers may find adapting to new responsibilities a bit easier when Johnson begins playing again.
“[Johnson] excels with pressure on him,” said Tiano. “He’s not going to be someone who’s going to shy away from pressure. He’s not going to be someone who’s going to shy away from the spotlight. He eats that up and accepts that and is ready to make his name and make a mark back in Saugerties and across the section and state.”