When Lordstown's Nick Johnson opened up the newspaper on Jan. 25 to read about the recap from his Red Devils' win over Bristol, he received a pleasant surprise.
The 6-foot-3 forward saw a quote from Bristol coach Craig Giesy calling Johnson "one of the best big men in the Northeastern Athletic Conference." It's the type of praise Johnson has been receiving from opponents all year long for his play, as he is averaging 17 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per game.
Not that Johnson will let the talk give him a big head, however.
"I thought about it a little bit, and I was like, 'I can't let this get to me. I just got to keep coming out every night, working hard, getting rebounds, getting my points I get from the guards.' " Johnson said. "I can't let it get to my head - just got to keep playing my game."
Johnson's response is not surprising for first-year Lordstown coach Brian Force, who described his senior big man as a team-first player. This proved to be somewhat problematic during the preseason when Johnson wanted to get his teammates involved, but Force had to make him be selfish in the paint.
"Nick wanted to post up and kick it out and really share it," Force said. "We've had to force him to be a little more greedy and know that when he's in that position, he's helping our team because that's all that Nick cares about - helping our team."
Johnson, who earned honorable mention all-league last season, has carried the workload on offense, eclipsing the 20-point mark in a game six times already this season. Not only has Johnson benefited from his increased production, but so have the Red Devils, who went on a six-game winning streak before losing to Windham on Tuesday. Lordstown is now 10-6 and 7-3 in the NAC.
"It really comes down to him believing when he goes to the rim, he can make those plays, and he's got that rolling right now," Force said. "Not only is he believing, but our team's believing. And we're feeding him the ball and saying, 'Go get it, Big Daddy.' "
That belief has helped Johnson where his game has improved the most - his finishing and movement in the paint.
Johnson attributes that improvement to playing against his older brother, Kyle. Kyle has three inches on Nick, and because of this, Nick knows how to play against guys who are taller and bigger than him, which has already proved handy a couple of times this season and should continue to prove handy come tournament time.
"He's a bigger guy, and he doesn't really have much of a jumper," Johnson said of his brother. "So, the post moves, like a drop step and an up-and-under, he's taught me some of that stuff. Going to the hoop, going against a bigger guy, he's really helped me along the way."
Now, Johnson and his teammates find themselves vying for a conference championship, something the program hasn't experienced in recent years. The Red Devils went undefeated in Trumbull A league play during the 1974-1975 and 1975-1976 seasons, but the school has no record of another league title.
This year, Lordstown controls their own destiny, one game ahead of Bristol in the NAC Stripes Division. Johnson said he and his teammates are enjoying the experience.
"The last time we won a championship, we won the eighth-grade NAC championship, but we didn't have any type of success since I've been on the varsity team," Johnson said. "So, this is a whole new experience - a real fun one, too."