- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. -- Greg Johnsen didn’t just overhear something or was being told secondhand information about how people were giving Elk Grove’s football team no shot at winning this season.
No, everything Johnsen heard was from people who stood right before him and openly expressed their doubt in him and his teammates.
“There were parents who had seniors last year who said we would be 3-6,” Johnsen said. “There were teachers in our school who didn’t believe in us. I would just accept it. I would say sarcastically, ‘Yeah. We’ll see,’ and go along with it.
“Now we see those people around and they say, ‘Good job,’ and I chuckle.”
Johnsen has been having himself a good old time this season. Unexpected to do anything after losing a bulk of its talent to graduation, the Grenadiers have been of the season’s biggest surprises. They’ve gone 10-1 and have reached the quarterfinals for only the second time in the last 25 years. They’ll play Lake Zurich in Class 7A on Saturday.
One of the main reasons why Elk Grove has had its improbable season is because of Johnsen. He’s been a leader for a young and inexperienced group and has been as a wrecking ball for opposing offenses at nose tackle.
Johnsen was the Mid-Suburban League East Defensive Player of the Year and is now the ESPNChicago.com Prep Athlete of the Week.
“This year has been really special for him,” Elk Grove coach Brian Doll said. “I think defensively he’s just been able to dominate. It’s just his desire. He runs at such a high motor in the games, and he’s been so dominant at the position. You’re talking about a D-lineman with about 90 tackles. That’s not something you’re used to hearing.”
Offensive lines haven’t been to figure out a way to contain Johnsen this season. He’s had 92 tackles, 12 sacks and 25 tackles for loss in 11 games.
Doll and Johnsen largely credited his success to his wrestling background. Johnsen , who is 5-10 and 205 pounds, can get off the ball quickly and from there he understands how to use his body to bypass linemen.
“A lot of it’s about technique and speed,” Johnsen said. “Wrestling helps with balance a lot. It sounds weird, but you know where your body is. You know where you’re stepping. When you’re wrestling someone, you got to feel where you are.”
Doll understood exactly what Johnsen meant.
“There’s the ability to understand leverage with wrestling,” Doll said. “He understands how pressure is applied in one direction and spin off it in another. I see his moves in wrestling just transfer over to the field so well.”
What doesn’t transfer over from off the field to on it is Johnsen’s personality. While he wrestles and is also on the track and field team, football is by far his favorite sport with the reason being it allows him to step the furthest out of his normal self.
“You get to hit people in the face,” said Johnsen, who also plays guard. “You get to become a different person on the field. I’m normally a pretty quiet person. I don’t’ say very much. I’m a very nice person. When I get on the field, I’m all about hitting people and being loud. You get to be a meaner person of yourself when you’re on the field.”
Doll doesn’t mind a bit of meanness out of his nose tackle. But what Doll has been especially impressed by this season has been Johnsen’s leadership.
“His leadership on and off the field for us have been crucial to our success this year,” Doll said. “He’s been a mentor to all of the players.
A lot of people thought this would be a transition year. He’s a big part of the reason why we’ve been so successful.”