How many years do you read a recruiting story about the Connecticut Huskies and find the word "reloading" somewhere in the story? Add another slash to that count because Geno Auriemma and his staff are doing just that in the 2010 class.
Wednesday's verbal commitment of 6-foot-3 Michala Johnson of Lombard, Ill., to the Huskies makes three commitments from the junior class, each ranked in the ESPN HoopGurlz Super 60, all in the top 20 in fact. Samarie Walker (No. 2), a 6-foot-1 wing from Dayton, Ohio, and Stefanie Dolson (10), a 6-5 post from Slate Hill, N.Y., committed prior to Johnson (19).
In November, Johnson cut her list of schools to an even dozen -- California, Connecticut, DePaul, Duke, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Oklahoma, Penn State, Purdue, Vanderbilt and Wisconsin.
The athletic forward made an unofficial visit to Connecticut on March 16, and Johnson admitted she considered committing on the spot. She made visits to DePaul, Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin prior to her visit to Storrs.
Johnson made the visit along with her mother, Cathrecea and younger sister Malayna. Her sister will be a freshman at Montini Catholic next year and she's an inch taller than Michala, but just started playing basketball this past year.
The Johnson trio flew into Connecticut on Saturday before the actual visit, Monday, to check things out on their own and sneak in a little shopping. The family also made a side trip to New York where her uncle lives and got in a little more shopping.
"Michala just loved the campus," Cathrecea Johnson said, "before she even had her tour with the coach and met the coaches. She was impressed with the school grounds and the area. It was a good visit with the coaches as well and the teammates."
On the visit Johnson said she really connected with two of the Huskies' freshmen, Caroline Doty and Tiffany Hayes as well as super sophomore Maya Moore.
"I got along with everybody," Johnson said. "Everything was nice. I don't know, just somthing in me just felt right about the whole team and coaches."
Early on in her recruiting process Johnson wanted to stay closer to home but as she watched more college basketball from across the country her desire to spread her wings just kept growing.
"It didn't really matter how far she went," Cathrecea Johnson added. "She just wanted to go someplace that was a go fit for her and it worked out that her uncle is about a two hour drive, to New York, so that was good for her."
Johnson's family supported her making an early commitment, but her mother also said she would have understood if her daughter wanted to take more visits to be sure. But mom was just as comfortable as her daughter with the Connecticut program being the right fit.
"I really felt comfortable after meeting with (associate head coach) Chris Dailey and then meeting with (head) coach Geno," Cathrecea Johnson said. "Some of the things he looks for in players, I kind of as a parent, (we) have the same views on what type of player he likes to have on his team. And Michala's interaction with the other players on the team was just, it was really, really good and as a parent it made me feel that this was a place she would definitely be a part of and not an outsider."
Johnson has been a little under the radar this year as her season was cut short by a partial tear to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee. The injury first occurred on July 31, 2008, the last day of the NCAA certified viewing period but at the time surgery was not required. When she returned to the court for her junior season she reinjured her knee and had surgery Jan. 30, 2009.
"I think what Michala learned most during this process is how much she really loves the game of basketball." Jason Nichols, her Montini Catholic High School coach, said. "It destroyed her that she couldn't help us get back downstate. When we lost to Marshall in the super sectionals I looked at her, she was crying and I knew that it was killing her. She knew she could help the team and there was nothing she could do about it. "
She will more than likely stay out of the spotlight this club season as well, at least as much as a kid ranked among the nation's 20 best players can, because she simply won't be on the court. She doesn't have anything to prove on the summer circuit and will be focusing on rehabilitation and strength building to be ready for her senior year at Montini Catholic. According Nichols, her target date to return to basketball is November for the start of her senior season at Montini Catholic which would be 10 months after the surgery to repair the ligament.
"Michala's attitude has been so optimistic, so positive," Cathrecea Johnson said. "She's just been ready to work really hard and she's already started doing therapy to get herself back strong. This really opened her eyes to see that she really loves the game."
"Michala works my youth summer camp in the summer and she worked her tail off last summer and it was evident by the summer she had," Nichols said. "I expect the same thing this summer and expect her to get back to where she was in time. People didn't know that Michala was in the gym five days a week last summer working. She was working out two hours a day by herself on her jump shot and ball skills. I would bet after this injury that when the time comes she is cleared to get back on the court I will have hold her back a bit."
On her visit, Johnson took in classes with Doty, who is also rehabbing a torn ACL. In Doty's case this is her second time recovering from an ACL tear.
"We're basically at the same pace coming along with our knees," Johnson said of the recovery process for both she and Doty.
Johnson is long and athletic. Her physical gifts and ball skills allow her to play multiple positions in the front court. She has the height to play the post position and the mobility and quickness to play the forward position easily. She has a solid base of post moves that center around fundamental footwork and good body control. The biggest area for improvement is physical strength. She has a long and lean build that is great for blocking shots and facing up but adding strength will help her hold her own against the biggest and toughest the Big East has to offer in the paint.
The Huskies add just two new players to the court next season, a highly touted high school guard in Kelly Faris (Indianapolis, Ind./Heritage Christian) and a University of Washington transfer Jessica McCormack (Auckland, New Zealand) who is sitting out her mandatory season this year.
With the graduation this year of Cassie Kerns, Renee Montgomery and Tahirah Williams, the Huskies will carry an additional scholarship forward for the 2010 class. Next season five players graduate from the Connecticut roster -- Tina Charles, Jacquie Fernandez, Meghan Gardler, Kalana Greene and Kaili McLaren.
Basic math suggests the Huskies could sign as many as six players in the 2010 class in replacing those set to graduate, assuming they don't add any prospects in the 2009 spring signing period. The team has just 14 players on its roster this year, including McCormack so the team could potentially add a total of eight new players between now and the start of the 2010-2011 season.
Numbers aside the 2010 class to date seems to complement the additions from the 2009 class well while fitting needs to boot. With the loss of Charles, Gardler, Kerns and McLaren, the team could use some depth in the paint. With Dolson, a true center and Johnson, an athletic player who can run the floor or score from the boxes, that need seems to be well addressed.
Connecticut also has offers out to 5-11 combo guard Lauren Englein of Laguna Hills, Calif., and the top point guard in the 2010 class according to ESPN HoopGurlz, Bria Hartley of North Babylon, N.Y. Hartley is ranked No. 4 overall in the class.
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Chris Hansen is the National Director of Prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.
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