Last summer, Jacob Johnston played for the prestigious Peoria Irish AAU team. He had NCAA Division I-bound teammates and played in front of college coaches like Notre Dame's Mike Brey and Valparaiso's Bryce Drew, just to name a few.
The experience was invaluable for the Erie senior, who has put up some of the gaudiest numbers in the Sauk Valley.
Before Friday's regular-season finale, the ultra-versatile 6-foot-4 guard/forward was averaging 21.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.7 blocks per game.
"Playing and practicing with the kind of talent he saw all summer completely changed his game," Cardinals coach Ryan Winckler said. "It's night and day from what he was last year, and he was pretty good last year."
Johnston has had to take on an even heavier burden than expected for a 15-12 squad that is 7-6 in the Three Rivers. That's because starting point guard and fellow senior Zach Maloney has been sidelined all season after tearing an ACL during football season. Maloney practiced for the first time this season Thursday.
On Jan. 25, Johnston had his own injury scare.
"We were playing Riverdale, and it was in the fourth quarter," he said. "I went up and felt a pop, and my back gave out. I tried playing for a little bit, but I couldn't move very fast."
Johnston sat out Erie's game the following day and missed a week's worth of practice before returning Feb. 2.
He did not go to a doctor, instead opting for chiropractic sessions and some aid from his mother.
"My mom does massage," said Johnston, who is undecided on what college he'll attend. "I had her check it out. I think it was a pulled muscle. It was spasming. My whole side was tight."
Since, his back has come along well.
"I don't think anybody's ever 100 percent, but I'm close enough," he said. "If I feel tight, I have my mom work on it, and I go to the chiro about once a week."
Johnston's most memorable game of the season was the West Carroll tournament championship victory over Eastland in mid-December. Johnston had a career-high 35 points.
"We were down by nine with 6 minutes left, and he took over the game," Winckler said. "He put us on his back."
Another wow moment that Johnston – who Winckler said is too unselfish at times – provided came early in the season.
"In the Orion game [Nov. 23], he caught the ball on the wing, had a nice shot fake and ripped through on the baseline and went up and dunked it really hard," Winckler said. "Then, he hit about five 3s with guys all over him. That just showed what he was capable of."
Doing it all
Johnston's season averages: 21.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.7 blocks