March 30, 2012

Rebound: Johnson, St. Lawrence Back on Track

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Mac Johnson, shown here during the 2010 season before his ACL injury, is back to his old form for St. Lawrence. The Saints have rebounded as well, racing off to a 6-0 start heading into Saturday's game with No. 12 Union.
© Tara Freeman

As he knelt next to sophomore starting attackman Mac Johnson on the St. Lawrence practice field last year, Mike Mahoney thought to himself, "Could anything else go wrong this year?"

The Saints were already 2-4 and had previously lost their starting goalie to a broken thumb. Now Johnson, the second-leading scorer on the 2010 team, was done for the season with an ACL tear.

Things just got worse. St. Lawrence, which had never been defeated in Liberty League play heading into the '10 season, went winless in the conference. Johnson's absence didn't help.

"As much as you try to preach to the guys that we have solid depth and the whole next-man-up philosophy, when you lose a guy who was such a key contributor to the offense, it does have an impact," said Mahoney. "We were playing some good teams and coming up on the short end of the scores. The cumulative effect of that impacted the morale and we just had a difficult time as a group digging out from that hole."

Standing on the sidelines for the rest of the year on crutches – he opted to delay his surgery until the end of the season – Johnson was miserable. The top finisher on the Saints team with what Mahoney describes as "a terrific set of hands," Johnson looked on as the offense mustered just 7.12 goals per game.

"I've never been a good watcher," admitted Johnson, a native of Stratham, N.H. "I was there to support the team, but it was just a tough year. Very frustrating."

While Mahoney was happy that Johnson remained a part of the team, the coach knew he'd have to prop up his player's psyche, just like he had with all of the others who suffered debilitating injuries.

"He takes his role very seriously, and in one sense he probably felt like he was letting the team down," said Mahoney of Johnson. "It certainly took an emotional toll, and we had more than one conversation with Mac to try to lift his spirits and help him see the big picture. When it happens, it seems like the end of the world, and we needed to let him know that he was just a sophomore. There's light at the end of the tunnel."

At the conclusion of the forgettable 2011 campaign, the Saints decided to simply ignore that season and start fresh.

"We flushed it down," said Johnson, referring to where memories of that campaign went. "We got a new mindset and took things really seriously. We concentrated on the little things; the details, the passing and catching. In the summer, we just stepped up as a team and decided that if we wanted to win games, it would come in the offseason."

Johnson tackled his rehab with a ferocious determination. He was kept out of most of the fall ball activities as his knee continued to heal, but he noticed the sharpness in the rest of the team when they took the field.

As the preseason started for St. Lawrence, Johnson was fitted with a bulky brace that cut down his mobility. He wasn't sure what to expect when he headed out to practice, but he decided to just dive in head first.

"I just kind of went for it," he said. "Our training staff is phenomenal. Mentally, I would have been a lot worse, but the training staff gave me the feeling that I was strong enough and mentally tough enough."

In the first game of the season, the Saints took on Haverford. With the Black Squirrels leading in the third quarter, Johnson struck for a pair of goals to tie the game, sparking a run that ended with a 7-6 victory for the Saints.

"In all honesty, I thought it was important for Mac to get off to a good start early and not let any doubt creep in," Mahoney said. "I think for him to get a couple that day and for the team to get a win was a feel-good situation for everyone involved. I think that confidence has continued to elevate over the first half of the season."

Johnson scored two goals in the next game against Montclair State, another Saints win. After six games, he is tied for second on the team in goals and SLU is 6-0.

"Mentally, it was definitely for the best, the way I played and the way we played as a team," said Johnson. "When you get the first few goals, that's the biggest thing for us. We're a talented team, but we just needed to get everything moving."

Johnson and St. Lawrence are on a parallel course right now. Mahoney knows after what transpired last season, the perfect start was just as critical to his entire program as it was for his finisher.

"You don't want to say, 'Make or break,' but it was very important for us to get off to a good start," Mahoney said. "Did it have to be 6-0? No. Teams can learn from losses, but this particularly year, I thought it was more important that we learn from some close wins. We didn't need to build anymore character coming into this year. The table was set for us to get off to a good start and, fortunately, we did. That has helped the confidence of every player."

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