Tenacity main attribute for Zias’ undersized Johnson

Joshua Lucero: CMI correspondent At 5-foot-7, ENMU’s Tara Johnson is often asked to guard much larger interior players, but Zias coach Lindsey Wilson said the Portales native has done the job with tenacity.

Eric Butler

PORTALES — Tara Johnson has always been tenacious.

Certainly, her tenacity combined with raw talent led to her playing for Portales High’s girls basketball and volleyball varsity teams while she was anywhere from two to four years younger than the rest of the players.

Aggressiveness can sometimes have a side effect, and two banged-up knees in high school are also part of Johnson’s resume.

But the tenacity remained and her desire to continue playing basketball helped Johnson land a spot playing college hoops at Lubbock Christian University.

Now back in Portales, and playing for hometown Eastern New Mexico University, Johnson is as tenacious as ever — and she needs to be.

These days Johnson, who has always been considered a guard and indeed is still listed as one on the ENMU roster, is spending much of her time on the court as a “four” in basketball parlance.

That’s historically considered the power forward position and it’s a tall order for a player who only reaches her listed height of 5-foot-7, “on a good day,” according to Zias coach Lindsey Wilson.

But Johnson is succeeding well enough right underneath the basket to have started in 21 games for Eastern this season. Only senior Tori Northcutt, a former Clovis High product, has started more.

“It’s just a lot of effort on her part. When you play hard, it makes up for physical disadvantages,” Wilson said. “Tara’s one of those kids that stays up here and works out every day. She’s always at the gym.”

ENMU (10-16), seeded eighth, takes on top-seeded Tarleton State (20-8) at 7:30 p.m. (MST) today in the quarterfinals of the Lone STar Conference tournament at Allen, Texas. And Johnson is expected to be right there in the paint trying to fend off taller women in pursuit of the basketball and points.

At the beginning of the season, when new coach Wilson unveiled her strategy for Johnson, the Zias’ junior harbored some doubts.

“I said, ‘Coach are you sure?,’” Johnson recalled. “I’m like five-seven and these girls are 6-1e and 6-2. I mean, I knew I could ball with them, but you know.”

But Johnson has averaged 4.2 rebounds per game, gathering as many as ten in one outing against Abilene Christian, and has a 4.5 scoring average as well.

When Wilson took the job with ENMU, she wasn’t aware of Johnson’s painful past in regard to her knees.

In the summer before Tara Johnson’s freshman year of high school, she tore the ACL in her right knee. At the tail end of her junior year, in fact during the game before Portales moved into the state quarterfinals, Johnson crumbled to the floor after tearing the ACL in her left knee.

“If you didn’t know her, you would never think she had any problems with her knees,” Wilson said. “I couldn’t tell.”

“I’m doing good now. After games, when I get home, I put ice on them,” Johnson said. “After the first one, I was pretty nervous. But with the second one, I was just like, ‘Come on, let’s get it (the rehabilitation) over with.’”

Wilson laughs when it’s suggested that Johnson might be one of the team’s “quiet leaders.”

“Absolutely not,” the coach said. “She’s definitely one of the most outgoing people on the team.”

And it’s a team that has made big strides from a squad that only won five games in the 2010-11 season. In that year, Johnson started only 10 games and struggled with the rest in Zias uniforms.

“This team, they wanted to be good,” Wilson said. “As long as they have the attitude to be good, they have the ability.”