WC coach, sophomore propelled team back to forefront

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 14, 2003

[4/13/03]Warren Central coach Donny Fuller looks at sophomore Cookie Johnson as a player with unlimited potential.

He sees an undersized post player with a natural knack for outrebounding taller, more physical competition.

He sees a scoring threat from both outside and inside.

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He sees a natural athlete who excels in both basketball and softball.

Most importantly, he will see her for two more years.

Johnson, who averaged a double-double in leading the Lady Vikes to the Division 4-5A championship last season, earned the Vicksburg Post Girls Player of the Year award, the first sophomore ever to earn the honor.

“Any time a kid can go out and average a double-double in points and rebounds, which she did, that’s a heckuva year,” said Fuller. “She’s listed as a sophomore, but she doesn’t play like a sophomore.”

The coach who speaks so highly of his star player also reeled in an award himself as The Vicksburg Post’s Coach of the Year. It marks the fifth time he has won the award.

“The kids did the job this year,” Fuller said. “I thought this group of kids worked harder than any other group I have had from where they started to where they were at the end. That’s a credit to the kids.”

Fuller’s team struggled mightily early, and for good reason. The Lady Vikes had graduated all five starters from the previous season’s 24-win team.

The team started three sophomores and a pair of juniors, but somehow came together to make a run toward the division championship.

Finishing second in the regular season, the Lady Vikes knocked off Vicksburg in a game Johnson and fellow all-county player Ebon Williams dominated the boards.

“That was a great win,” said the soft-spoken Johnson. “They were talking a lot of noise.”

After taking down Vicksburg, the Lady Vikes upended host Natchez, a team that entered the game with only three regular-season losses. Again Johnson had double figures in rebounds.

“Cookie has a knack for knowing where the ball is going to come off the rim,” Fuller said. “I watched her one day on tape shoot the ball from the right wing and get the offensive rebound on the left side of the floor.

“It was unbelievable. We work on blocking out, but you can’t teach that.”

Johnson, at 5-feet, 10-inches tall, said she faces plenty of competition while playing on the Mission 66 courts.

“They are tough,” Johnson said of her male counterparts. “They sometimes try to take it easy on me, but I tell them to play me tough.”

Her toughness down low is unquestioned, now the work on her outside game will begin.

Fuller said that when colleges start showing serious interest in Johnson, which they will, she has to develop more of an outside shooting game. Johnson averaged 12.4 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. She also had 44 blocks and 75 steals.

“We’re going to do some things to show off her talent, because in college, she’s not going to be able to play inside,” Fuller said. “We plan to try to use her in some different sets.”

Whether inside or out, Fuller could find himself landing his sixth coach of the year honor next season.

He is the first to admit that a division championship was the furthest thing from his mind during the first half of the year.

“I knew we were going to struggle early,” Fuller said. “It got frustrating for me as a coach because I wanted us to get better sooner.

“We just kept working. When you start three sophomores and five new starters, you are going to rebuild some.”

Fuller’s team finished 14-16 and lost to Tupelo in the North State satellite game, but he is quick to point out that although the record wasn’t over .500, no one else has their hands on the division championship trophy.

And no one may get it for the next couple years, either.

“I don’t have to tell you we are the team to beat,” Fuller said. “Because (Forest Hill’s) Tommy Groves, (Vicksburg’s) Mike Coleman and (Natchez’s) Mary Irving will tell you that.

“We’ll be lucky to win five.”