By DAVE HANNEMAN
COLUMBUS — Drew Johnson wrote a thank you note nearly a decade ago, and delivered a prophecy in the process.
“Dear Coach,” Johnson, a fourth-grader and ballboy for the varsity basketball team, wrote to Josh Klear, Pandora-Gilboa’s coach at the time.
“Thank you for teaching me and my team how the fund of metals (sic) of the game of basketball is played. … I don’t know how to pay you back, but I promise one thing, that I and our team, when I get in High School, will be the state champions of 2018.”
Johnson did not deliver on that promise, not quite anyway. But along the way he and his P-G teammates completed a rags-to-riches story untarnished even by Thursday’s 56-54 loss to Marion Local in the Division IV state semifinals at Value City Arena.
If anything, Thursday’s state semifinal, a classic battle of solid small-school basketball at its best, only enhanced the story.
“We’ve been coming here (state) just watching. To actually come here and play, it’s a been a dream come true,” Johnson said. “It’s so surreal, playing under the lights in front of thousands of people. It’s truly an honor.”
It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the seniors — all nine of them — and juniors on P-G’s roster, with more highs and lows than a feather in a hurricane.
Pandora-Gilboa fielded one of the top eighth-grade teams in Putnam County four years ago. A year later, three of those former eighth-graders were in the starting varsity lineup. The year after that, two more freshmen joined the club.
Those youngsters took their lumps, lots of them, and suffered losses — 20 to be exact — that first year of varsity ball.
The lumps kept coming their sophomore year. So did the losses. But 16 is fewer than 20, isn’t it? And there’s something to be said about growth spurts, maturity and experience, right?
When Joe Braidic, who had been the school’s coach from 1990-93 and again from 1998-2010, returned two years ago for his third stint as P-G’s coach, he noticed something right away.
“We have our summer camps at Huntington (University) where my son (Tyler) is an assistant coach,” Braidic said.
“So we go down there, and I told Tyler to give us some teams where we had a chance to win so we could build some confidence. So we’re playing a game, and we’re winning by, like, 10 points with about a minute left. The other team puts on what’s called a summer press, not very hard at all, and all of a sudden we’re throwing the ball off the back wall, tossing it around like it’s a hot potato.
“I called a timeout and said, ‘Guys, are you trying to lose? All you have to do is hang onto the ball and the game is over.’ They were so shook because they had been beaten down so many times that they had forgotten what it was like when they were in eighth grade and they were the dominant team.
“So all we did when those guys were juniors was talk about playing with confidence and playing the right way.”
Johnson credits Braidic with helping him realize his full potential.
“I thought I was going as good as I could but coach kept telling me I had another level I could get to,” Johnson said.
“That’s all we needed, for him to believe in us and for us to believe in him. We didn’t care what outsiders said because we knew we had all the pieces. In the end it all comes down to believing in ourselves and heart.”
During the 2016-17 season, the Rockets filled the win column with a double-digit number — 16. More importantly, they got to add some in-the-hand hardware, a Putnam County League championship trophy, to the usual optimistic speeches and platitudes dished out at end-of-the-season awards banquets.
A first-round tournament loss to Ottoville took a bit of the luster off of that 16-6 regular season. In a way, it also defined the Rockets future.
“We made 55 percent of our 2-point shots, 45 percent of our 3s and lost the game,” Braidic said. “All we talked about heading in to this year was defense, because we knew if we wanted to go anywhere that’s what you had to buy into.
“What you saw today was two really good small schools playing really good basketball. When you get to this level, what you want to see is teams playing their best, and I think you saw that today. Eight leads changes, four ties … I think this will be one of the better games you are going to see down here this week.”
Johnson was the last of the P-G players to walk off the Value City Arena floor. Like his teammates, he would have loved to have reached Saturday’s championship game.
But the way he tells it, he’s still way ahead of the game.
“I thought I could accomplish a lot, but I’ve accomplished more than I ever dreamed of,” Johnson said. “This class has been doubted a long time. This year we had one of the best records in the state (26-2) and people still said we wouldn’t make it out of our districts or regionals, we wouldn’t be able to beat (Convoy) Crestview and wouldn’t be able to stay with a team out of the MAC (Midwest Athletic Conferfence), that they’d beat us by 10, 15 points.
“We always felt like we were the underdogs, even today. So, we felt, why not just come out play our game, play with heart and all the effort you can give, and show the state what you’re about. We left it all out on the floor. It didn’t come out the way we wanted it to, but I think people coming out of this are thinking we’re legit.”
And the Drew Johnson now, like the Drew Johnson who sent his coach a thank-you note all those years ago, is leaving a bit of prophecy behind for those following in his and his teammates footsteps..
“Our guys are hurting right now. But it’s like coach says, there are bigger things than basketball,” Johnson said. “Life is full of lessons to learn and we can learn a lot from this as a family, a group, a unit.
“We went from three wins one year to 26 wins this year. If I can help any of the young kids out there it would be to tell them to dream big, but understand that it takes a lot of heart and it takes a lot of hard work. When you feel you can’t be pushed anymore, I promise you, you have another step to go.”
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By DAVE HANNEMAN