By Mike Wilkinson, Hampshire Gazette Staff
SPRINGFIELD — With a wealth of natural ability and a strong support system in place, former Amherst Regional lacrosse star Nick Johnson is thriving early in his college career — and helping another program rise to prominence.
Through 14 contests, the Clark University freshman attack leads the squad with 29 goals, 22 assists and 51 points. He's already surpassed his 22-game totals from his high school senior season.
"I didn't expect such a prominent role this soon," Johnson said. "I just tried to earn as much time on the field as I could by playing as hard as I could. Because I'm so focused in on playing, I can't really pick out anything in particular I did to stand out to the coaches. I'm just grateful for the opportunity."
Back in the Pioneer Valley Wednesday night, he scored a pair of goals in a 22-7 loss at Springfield College.
Fifth-year Clark head coach Jeff Cohen envisioned an immediate role for Johnson, but some injuries to upperclassmen led to the freshman starting every game and becoming a focal point of the attack.
"We didn't expect this much from him this soon, but he's run with the opportunity," Cohen said. "He's absorbed the information and is well-suited to the college game. We knew he'd be perfect for our program."
Johnson's older brother Chris, the team's assistant coach, was an all-league sophomore when Cohen began his tenure in 2010, and finished his career fourth in program history in goals and total points. Nick Johnson said his brother didn't put any pressure on him to attend the same school, but that the fit was natural.
Cohen mentioned the great relationship he and the Clark program have with the Johnson family.
"I've been watching Nick for years," Cohen said. "So it was pretty natural for him to come in here."
The Route 9 pipeline from Amherst to Worcester doesn't end with the Johnsons. The Bass brothers — senior Jonah and freshman Isaac — also played for Matt Crutch with the Hurricanes and now for Cohen with the Cougars.
"The other guys call us the Amherst mafia," Nick Johnson said. "It's awesome to have some guys from home to be around, and also some of my brother's friends whom I know pretty well. It's a nice base of support."
Said Cohen, "The town of Amherst correlates well with the Clark University community. We're very fortunate to have families like the Johnsons and the Basses support our program. Jonah is one of our senior leaders on offense, and Isaac's a true talent. He'll be making a name for himself soon."
As he did for Amherst, Johnson serves as a "quarterback of the offense," as Cohen described it. Doing most of his work from the goal line extended and behind, Johnson uses the open space to his advantage.
"I really like being positioned behind the net because you see the entire field a lot better," he said. "That's a spot where you can find an open teammate or wheel around and put a strong shot on. I also like to dodge from that spot."
Johnson said he needed a time to adjust to the college game, but the numbers suggest otherwise. He posted nine points over his first two collegiate games, scored five times in his fifth game and put up a season-high 11 points April 7 against Anna Maria College.
"It's a lot faster game (at the college level), so I had to get used to that at first," Johnson said. "But overall there are a lot better players and a lot more strategy, which is a part of the game I like a lot. I'd say my skillset is better served at this level. I like to push the ball, so the quicker tempo is suited for me."
While not yet in a traditional leadership position as a freshman, there's no doubt his teammates look to him on the field.
"When the game's on the line, Nick is usually the guy with the ball on his stick," Cohen said. "So in that sense he's certainly a leader."
The Cougars (7-6) wrap up their regular season schedule at 1 p.m. Saturday at Emerson. A victory would secure the first winning regular season in the program's 24-year history.
This year's Cougars have already made some history. They've qualified for the New England Men's and Women's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) tournament for the first time. The semifinals are set for next Wednesday, with Clark likely headed back to Springfield to face the top-seeded Pride.
"Our goal is to find a way to beat Springfield next week," Johnson said. "We're not thinking about anything else."
When Johnson began at Amherst Regional, the Hurricanes were a program in need of revival. He and his fellow classmates accomplished that, and now Johnson wants to translate that to his college program.
"In high school we stayed positive and helped each other improve, and that's what I'm trying to help Clark do as well," Johnson said.
"I saw a lot of potential in Clark, and every year the program seems to get better," he added. "There are a lot of programs that remain stagnant, but we keep taking strides in the right direction. And I also like the academics, so the school as a whole is great. This is definitely the spot for me."
"He's an outstanding player, especially for what we need here," Cohen said. "But as well as he's done so far, he's not even close to where we project him to be for the rest of his career. The sky's the limit for this kid."