Head coach of the girls track and field program and an assistant with the boys team, he has been known to spot players on the football team and encourage them to give the spring sport a try.
Johnson, who works specifically with the throwers, knows what he is looking for in a thrower — one that is coachable and explosive.
“It is a complicated set of moves, especially when you start spinning in the circle,” he said. “You need someone who can process multiple movements at once. You can’t have a strong will and not listen and succeed.”
As for being explosive, Johnson, who also assists football coach Josh Shaw, said that can come from a variety of places.
“I’m a football coach, so I recruit football players,” he said. “Then, softball players are generally the next most explosive. Basketball can also be explosive, working the hips and jumping up, accelerating.
“I can teach technique if they are willing to listen, and we can get them strong if they are a little weak, but I look for someone who can generate movement with some power.”
Some athletes are a little harder to convince to come out for the team than others.
Tunde Ayinla was one such athlete.
A four-year member of the football program, Ayinla was encouraged by Johnson to join the track and field program early in his career, but it wasn’t until his senior season that he decided to go for it.
Even then, it took some coaxing.
“(Boys coach Charley Ingram) had been on me the last few years to come out,” Ayinla said. “But this last year, he donated to my lift-a-thon, and I said, if you give this certain amount, I will come out there. He donated, so I came out here.”
Ayinla made great strides during the year — improving his discus throw from 86 feet to his personal-best of 149 feet, 11 inches — just a few feet shy of the school record. Looking back, he wishes he would have come out sooner.
“The school record is 157,” he said. “I think that, if I might have started a few years earlier, I might have the school record right now. But there is nothing you can do about that. It’s in the past.”
Johnson said the hardest part of teaching Ayinla was helping him get past the hump of 70 to 90 feet.
“I was just chucking it out there,” Ayinla said. “My first few weeks weren’t pretty.”
“We had to get him to release it,” Johnson said. “That was the biggest difference.
Johnson trains athletes in both the discus and the shot put. Of the eight who competed in the Region 5AAAAAA meet, five placed in the top four and went on to sectionals. From there, two qualified for the state championships in the discus — Ayinla and Talley Redmond.
Other throwers, like Erin Reece and Lorainne Useche, set personal bests during the final meets, even if they won’t be competing for state titles.
“We are always looking at where you are and where you finish,” said Johnson. “We want you to be improving right along. That is a big determination if you are putting the work in.”
Ingram gives Johnson a lot of credit for the sudden success of the Warriors’ throwers, but Johnson said it’s more about the athletes putting in the work. He said it’s a combination of athletes getting strong and refining their technique.
“Their technique has improved,” he said. “They listen really well. It’s easy to coach them when they listen.”
Johnson, who has been at Cherokee four seasons, uses some unconventional methods. In order to practice for the discus, athletes may spend time throwing a heavy pipe or a traffic cone to mimic what they do when the discus is in their hand. Johnson said benefit to throwing the traffic cone is based on the more force that is put behind it, the more wind resistance there is.
“It’s still driving your hips through the throw and things like that,” he said. “They are just things that I have come up with to help them out without having them throw their arms out. After throwing the cone, they pick up the disk and think, ‘This is light and easy.’ So, it is a mental thing as well.”
The boys throw a discus that weighs approximately 2 pounds. That might not seem like much, but when considering that a Frisbee weighs only 3 ounces, a discus is suddenly a lot heavier.
“You have to have real strong fingers,” Johnson said. “That is one thing we have had to work on. The pipe throw helps with that, and we have them carry around plates to build finger strength.”
Johnson said hip movement matters as much as anything because competitors don’t actually throw the discus as much as they simply release it.
Ayinla and Redmond aren’t the first state qualifiers Johnson has produced. Mattie Hester, a 2011 graduate, qualified in both her junior and senior years.
Redmond, who has been throwing since he was a sophomore, will compete at state for the first time. Once a runner, he wanted to pursue a discipline that was less physically draining.
“Throwing is fun,” he said. “It gets me prepared for football because I’m working certain muscles that I wouldn’t otherwise work.”
For Johnson, the good news is the amount of young throwers who will enter the program next year. Cherokee did not have a junior track program until recently, so next year will be the first time the Warriors can benefit from a feeder program.
Johnson said it will make his job easier because he won’t have to spend some much time teaching the fundamentals.
“When I can start focusing on some of the more advanced stuff, like weight transfer as opposed to how to hold the implement, that is a big deal,” he said. “A lot of these people I get are throwing it for the very first time in high school.”
Johnson said he knows the athletes have it when they start self-coaching and coaching each other.
“Eventually, they know the technique as well as I do,” he said. “That is what we look for. There is no sense of self-preservation out here. Everybody is just helping each other improve.”