High expectations for Michigan's earliest recruit
It takes a special talent to be recognized by a Division I program as a freshman in high school. For that freshman to make a commitment to an NCAA tournament team is even more impressive.
More than three long years after she first pledged her allegiance to the Wolverines, freshman guard Akienreh Johnson from Toledo, Ohio, is finally starting her first season for the Michigan women’s basketball team.
“I just want to help the team out,” Johnson said. “I’ve been committed here for a while and each year I just (couldn't) wait to come out on the floor and help the team out.”
While finalizing her decision to come to Michigan was a relief for Johnson, she didn’t ease up at all on the court. She made the All-City first team three times (2013-15) and flourished her junior year as the Ohio Division II Player of the Year (2015), but it took some extra effort.
“Being committed before my sophomore year made me a target,” Johnson said. “So I was a target for three years in high school. And it’s hard because most kids are mean. They try and take you out. They try to do whatever they can just to beat you. ‘Oh she’s going to Michigan? I have to go at her.’ That’s a harder target than just, ‘Oh she has 15 offers, she’s not committed yet.’ ”
The increased adversity that Johnson faced didn’t make her determination to be a Wolverine falter, though. In fact, she was enthusiastic about convincing other recruits to join her on a future Michigan roster.
“It was kind of weird talking to other recruits,” Johnson said. “Because I’m like, ‘Well you should come here! I came here, I got it, you should get it.’ … I’ve been committed here longer than most of the juniors here, so it just shows how much I believe in this program.”
During the state playoffs of her junior year, Johnson averaged 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds before suffering a knee injury. She wasn’t able to play a full season as a high school senior, so her full potential has yet to be realized. This season will be a transition for her — more so than the other freshmen — because of the overlap between her recovery period and her senior season.
“Sometimes with some of the younger kids, when you change the speed and you change the strength it takes a little bit of time to adjust to that,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “So (for) our freshmen, it takes time to adjust to the speed and the strength of the practices at this level.”
Johnson’s early commitment and the subsequent intensified pressure from opponents may turn into her secret weapon. It proves that she’s able to handle adversity and adapt accordingly, which — if the Wolverines are lucky — will translate into an easier adjustment to the faster-paced collegiate level. If nothing else, Johnson has had adequate time to mentally prepare to play for Michigan. And so far, her excitement for the upcoming season has not wavered.
“We all talk about our dreams and our goal of winning,” Johnson said. “This will be the first year I’m not in the stands. I’m actually playing. Playing rather than watching is just 10 times better.”