Senior Walter Johnson is somewhat of the historian of Port Charlotte basketball’s recent rises and falls.
He was called up to varsity as a freshman and was part of a district championship run, beating rival Charlotte in the finals. He also saw the opposite side, watching Cape Coral hit a buzzer beater to steal a second district title away from the Pirates.
He was there for Port Charlotte’s 23-0 regular season and felt the devastating heartbreak of the Lehigh loss in last year’s regional final.
But in some ways, this year has been his most challenging yet.
After two injuries, Johnson is the lone senior on a team poised to make another postseason run. Whether he liked it or not, or was ready for the call, he’s been leaned on to guide the Pirates through a transition year after losing their entire starting five to graduation.
“It took him a while to get used to it,” Port Charlotte coach Kip Rhoten said. “He had six or seven seniors last year so he didn’t have to do anything. It took a lot of coaxing, but he began to buy in.”
It wasn’t an immediate evolution for Johnson. He wasn’t a natural leader and it took a fair amount of time and one significant moment of adversity for him to begin to fill that role.
That moment came during the Pirates toughest defeat of the year, a 61-23 loss to Charlotte on their home floor. Johnson was benched in that game.
“He didn’t do what I thought my captain needed to be doing,” Rhoten said of the decision. “I said, ‘You’re a captain, you have to go above and beyond.’ He was hurt and really humbled. Then he manned up.”
Following the game, Rhoten saw the first glimpse of the leader he’d expected Johnson to be as a senior captain.
Johnson got in front of the team and apologized for not fulfilling his duties. From that point on, Johnson has set the example for Port Charlotte, which is gelling at just the right time.
The Pirates are 11-6 with wins over Lehigh and Venice in the past week and a matchup with the Tarpons next Thursday.
“I’ve embraced the role,” Johnson said. “Everyone doubted us when (those seniors) left. So that was it for me. I took the challenge. The big thing for us has been just been getting all the new guys to get into the system and buying into the culture.”
Johnson has been with the program for four years, but his athleticism stems from playing just about every sport at the school.
He played football as a freshman and baseball as a sophomore — two sports he played when he was younger. During his junior year, he added swimming and track.
Out of all of those, swimming has benefitted his basketball career the most.
“Coming out of swim, I was easily the most conditioned on the team,” Johnson said. “It helps tremendously because it’s some of the best exercise you can get and it’s all full body without all the stress on your joints.”
Unlike last year, when the roster featured multiple athletes could play above the rim, there’s pretty much only one this year and it’s not Johnson.
That has made Port Charlotte alter their offensive playing style with less transition game, focusing more on shooting and possession.
“Last year we played above the rim,” junior Gerald Robinson said. “This year we have shooters and can control the ball more. Walter’s makes sure everybody’s in the right position and pushes everybody.”
Johnson now enters a pivotal part of his career. His senior year is coming to a close and the Pirates are zeroing in on the top district seed.
After how last season ended, the Pirates are looking to once again make a deep run. Seeing first hand what it takes, Johnson and the few returners from last year will lead the charge.
“The guys that were there in the locker room after the Lehigh loss, they saw what was going on on that court,” Johnson said. “They know how hard it is and how much it takes and what you gotta do. As a competitor, I’m looking for a state championship. That’s what I want and I know we can do it.”