There’s only one way Deion Johnson sees himself smiling in February.
“It’s my last season. I need to win a state title,” the Homewood-Flossmoor senior said.
Johnson, who wrestles at 113 pounds for the Vikings, seems to be headed in the right direction to accomplish that goal. He boasted a 12-2 record as of Dec. 19. Both losses came at the prestigious Walsh Ironman tournament in Ohio, generally considered one of the top high school events in the country.
Coach Jim Sokoloski called the next few matches after Ironman a “get-back week” for Johnson. He beat Bradley-Bourbonnais 113-pounder Ethan Spacht in a dual. Spacht finished fifth at 106 pounds in the Class 3A state championship last season. Johnson also won his match in a dual meet with Lockport on senior night.
“He’s good enough to know that he can have a bad weekend or a bad match and that doesn’t define the next tournament or the next match,” Sokoloski said. “He wanted to win the next one and get a nice bracket board.”
That board came from the Carnahan Invitational in Crown Point, Indiana, where the bracket keepsakes are a little more special than the usual white cardstock. The event is another that peppers the lineups with nationally-ranked wrestlers from throughout the Midwest. Johnson made almost easy work of the 113-pound class, though.
“This is my little comeback,” Johnson said. “A lot of the kids (at the Carnahan) were at Ironman but I didn’t get a chance to wrestle them. There was good wrestling here.”
Sokoloski said H-F coaches emphasize controlling the center of the mat, especially with the top-level wrestlers in the room. That much was clear in Crown Point. Johnson’s opponent in the final, Preston Haines of Brownsburg, Indiana, was consistently backing out of the action. The Vikings, their coaches and even parents and spectators from other teams were calling for stalling penalties that never came.
“I just knew I had to keep the pressure on. He was running away the whole match,” Johnson said. “I knew he was tough. He was a good wrestler. But I just had to keep that pressure on and I knew I was going to get him.”
Nonetheless, Johnson beat Haines in a 3-2 decision that most in attendance felt was less of a match than the score implied.
“That was probably the most complete match he’s wrestled in his entire time at H-F because (Haines) is a stud,” Sokoloski said. “The only thing that surprised me was how pedestrian he made that seem. None of us were ever really concerned he was ever going to give up any points.”
A win over Haines isn’t insignificant. The Brownsburg wrestler was the No. 2 finisher at 113 pounds in Indiana last season. He’s currently ranked No. 1 in the class in that state.
Haines was the second seed at the Carnahan, though. Johnson also beat the top seed, Karson Brown from St. Edward in Lakewood, Ohio, earlier in the day.
“They told me this morning I was the fourth seed and that kind of blew my mind,” he said.
Despite the lack of respect in the seeding, Johnson is a name in the regional wrestling scene. Over the summer at the U.S. Marine Corps Junior Nationals in Fargo, N.D. he finished second, going 5-1 in a 113-pound bracket that featured the top wrestlers in the country.
That gave him a confidence boost that he may have needed.
“Deion is Deion’s worst enemy because if he moves forward and controls the mat, there’s nobody that can stop his offense. It’s just about him trusting that he can do that,” Sokoloski said.
The next few weeks are all about training and getting better, Johnson said. Homewood-Flossmoor will participate in another huge national event when it heads to Pennsylvania for the Powerade Wrestling Tournament on Dec. 28. The aim of such a difficult schedule, Sokoloski said, is to make sure his team is comfortable wrestling against national-level talent so that when it has to beat state-level opponents it’s not intimidated or overwhelmed.
Johnson doesn’t expect to be.
“A happy finish is first place on the podium,” he said. “I just need that first. That’s all I need.”