Many days last summer, the Catholic Community remained a lonely place. It was just a young man, his basketball and his cones.
When he was not playing AAU basketball or working at Lycoming College, St. John Neumann senior Alize Johnson walked into an empty gym, pulled out the cones and began doing various ball-handling drills. Johnson envisioned the games coming to life and attacked his personal practice the way he would opposing defenders.
So many times this season, Johnson has brought Neumann fans to their feet with dazzling plays. Those are the finished products. If one wants to know why Johnson is so successful go back to that near-empty gym last summer. That is where one of the best Neumann seasons in program history was born.
St. John Neumann’s Alize Johnson (24) is weighing Division I?offers for next year, but up next is the second round of the?PIAA?playoffs.
"He's in the gym all the time," Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. "The moves he makes, they look so smooth and solid, but he will work on those for hours at a time and it's the same thing with his shot. He works on those things over and over again."
Johnson is talented but so are a lot of basketball players. It is the work Johnson does when nobody is watching that has made him one of the state's best Class A players.
Neumann (28-0) is undefeated and has captured HAC-III, Heartland Conference and District 4 championships. Tuesday it tries reaching the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2000 when it meets Phil-Mont Christian.
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The road to Tuesday's game has been a team effort. But it is Johnson driving the car.
"It's very fun playing with him. He puts a smile on our faces," Neumann guard Kevin Anderson said following Friday's 64-50 first-round win over Greenwood. "I think he has always been that since he was little. Ever since I started playing with him he's been a great player."
Johnson's journey began as a third grader when he started playing for Shiloh Baptist in the John Bower Basketball League. It might have been a later start than some other elite basketball players have had, but Johnson had found his passion. Six years later he was at Neumann, a barely 6-foot point guard starting on a struggling team that went 2-20.
That freshman year was a trial by fire but it proved a blessing. Johnson grew figuratively and literally and a year later helped Neumann make a huge turnaround and reach the state tournament's second round. The following season, Johnson grew to 6-6 and became an all-state player while helping Neumann capture its first district championship in 13 years.
"I liked it right away. I didn't play any other sports and I just kept playing," Johnson said. "I kept working year-round and I got better."
Now Johnson has arrived as a force. He is averaging 24 points and more than 17 rebounds per game while also leading Neumann in assists. He does it all and has become the team's undisputed leader. All those factors, combined with his work ethic, have made Johnson a hot Division I recruit for April's late signing period, and he said he is mulling over offers from schools like Iona, Long Island, St. Peter's and Frank Phillips College.
Johnson has elevated his performance in the postseason and was brilliant against Greenwood, scoring 29 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, dealing seven assists and making five steals. Even when he does not have a big scoring night, Johnson makes a huge impact. If Neumann players are moving well, Johnson will find them, seeing everyone and everything on the court even when it seems he might looking elsewhere.
"He's been putting up the assists all year with the points," Greenwood coach Kent Houser said. "He draws and dishes and he has good vision."
Johnson has recorded double-doubles in all six postseason games and even had a triple-double against Mansfield. That freshman season might have been the best thing to happen to him because Johnson now is a guard in a center's body and can basically play any position while hurting teams in so many ways.
Johnson's best quality, however, cannot be measured by stats. What he does best is make his teammates better. Those who simply look at Neumann's record might not think the team has made tremendous progress throughout the season but it has. Neumann might not still be playing had it remained where it was a few months ago. Johnson has never been satisfied and has made sure that his teammates have stayed just as hungry.
"His mindset is great right now. What makes a player great is how well you bring everyone up to your level and he's done a great job of that," Petcavage said. "He's brought everyone up. They all know he will give the ball up if they get open but can still take over a game if he has to."
Johnson takes after his cousin Chevy Troutman that way. Troutman is one of Williamsport's all-time greatest basketball players and is having a solid season in Germany right now. He led the Millionaires to a 1999 state championship and was a big man who could play the game like a guard.
Troutman has been unable to watch Johnson this season, but he is following him and keeping in touch. He has passed the torch in some ways and his younger cousin is running strong.
"He had a great season this year," Johnson said. "So right now I'm trying to have a better season but it's going to be hard."
Like Troutman did at Williamsport, Johnson is raising the bar high for future teams. The way he is doing it has made him an immensely popular player as well. Good luck finding someone who will say something negative about a player who has been as good off the court as on it.
Johnson is not a big talker but he will not hesitate to sit down with someone and raise their spirits if he senses he or she is feeling down. Congratulate him on a good game and Johnson can respond by making one feel like the most important person in the gym. It is not always easy living in the spotlight, but Johnson has handled it the same way he did those cones last summer. He has attacked the challenge and embraced it.
"Alize is gracious to everybody. People come up to him and I know he doesn't have a clue who they are and they wish him good luck and he takes the time to say something nice to them and will spend a couple minutes with them," Petcavage said. "He's just a good individual and everyone likes him."