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Dvorak champ Brad Johnson is coming out of the national shadow

By Rob Sherrill

St. Johns (Mich.) High-ace Taylor Massa, featured in a recent Q&A with WIN, still has yet to taste defeat in his high school career. He entered this season with a career record of 187-0…and the number on the right is not likely to change.
The same can’t be said of this issue’s subject. Lockport (Ill.) High 195-pounder Brad Johnson had 16 losses in his freshman season alone.
But that’s often what happens to a freshman 189-pounder … especially one at a heavier weight class … and the schedule that Lockport wrestles.
Over half the Porters’ regular-season schedule is against state-ranked teams.
But Johnson is a quick study. He took all those losses to the Assembly Hall in Champaign as a freshman state qualifier, improving to a fourth-place state finish as a sophomore.
Last year, Johnson finished 40-3 and won the 3A state championship. With a career record of 111-26 heading into this season, Johnson started this season 23-0.
That included one of the biggest victories of his high school career to date. In a battle between wrestlers who are defending 189-pound state champions, Division 1 signees and top 10 wrestlers in WIN’s rankings, Johnson scored a 6-4 victory over Gage Harrah of Crystal Lake Central High in the finals of the Al Dvorak Memorial Invitational at Machesney Park Harlem High.
Johnson, ranked No. 7 going into the match, committed to the University of Oklahoma in November. Harrah, the AA state champion a year ago, was ranked No. 2 and is committed to Drexel University.
Johnson also has been a fixture in the Cadet and Junior National freestyle championships for his homestate each summer. Fourth in the Cadet Nationals as a freshman and third as a sophomore, he also was a Junior All-American last year, finishing eighth.
Recently, WIN caught up with Johnson for this candid interview.
WIN: You signed with the University of Oklahoma in November. Talk about your recruitment process and why you chose OU.
Johnson: Oklahoma was one of the first schools to contact me back in July and I was also looking at Northwestern, Penn and Illinois. I really liked Coach (Mark) Cody and really respected what he did when he was at American (University). I had a really good recruiting trip there. The next week, I visited the University of Illinois and I really liked it a lot, too, but Oklahoma offered me a very, very good deal. There was just no way I could turn it down.

WIN: You’ve been a lot of places to wrestle, like Fargo, but you’ll be going a pretty good distance across the country to continue your college career. How much of an adjustment will that be?
Johnson: I’m really close to my family, but there’s a lot I like about Norman… like a lot of Southern hospitality. My host on my visit was (2011 Midlands champion) Kendric Maple and we hit it off really well. He’s an outstanding wrestler. He’s won a lot of matches and awards and stuff, but as great a wrestler as he is, he’s a great person, too. We talked a lot about all the things we’d been through, and he’s got a strong belief in God and he’s got his head on straight. That made a big difference with me.

WIN: You’re a Top 10 wrestler nationally at your weight class, yet you’re somebody who has flown under the radar most of your career. Why do you think that is and do you like it that way?
Johnson: It’s kind of like our team, Lockport. We just do everything really low-key. We have a lot of confidence in what we can do, but we’re kind of matter-of-fact about it. When you look up and down our line-up, everybody’s capable of a big win. If somebody loses a match, somebody else picks him up…even somebody we don’t expect. A lot of younger guys are doing that, like (sophomore 113-pounder) Austin Strzelczyk. He didn’t make it into the line-up last year, but he worked hard in the summer and he placed in the Cadet Nationals. He’s got a lot of big wins this year. We’ve got a line-up full of guys like that.

WIN: Your match against Gage Harrah (from Crystal Lake Central) in the finals at the Dvorak made it a match between two of the top 10 195-pounders in the nation. You’ve worked out with him and wrestled against him for three years in the off-season. How difficult was it going against somebody you know so well?
Johnson: Going back to grade school, we wrestled each other all the time. I lost a couple of close matches to him. When I was nine years old, I lost to him in the state finals and in the state in eighth grade I lost to him by a point. I’ve wrestled him a lot, so I knew what he had, and he knew what I had. I think it was a match everybody in the state of Illinois was looking forward to.

WIN: What was the game plan against him?
Johnson: I just had to move my feet, slow him down a little bit and get him into the third period. I knew he hadn’t really wrestled a full match yet, and he’d had to go six in the semifinals, so I had to try and wear him down.
I wrestled pretty well against him, but I was really surprised that I was able to score off a bad shot. I know I’ve wrestled a lot of pretty tough people this year, so I felt pretty confident. In the third period, I was able to break him down after that and ride him out. If I got on top, I knew I could do that.

WIN: You also wound up getting the Outstanding Wrestler award. How surprised were you?
Johnson: Really surprised. When you think about all the great wrestlers at the Dvorak, wrestlers who are ranked No. 1 in the country and some really dominating wrestlers. Shaun-Qae McMurtry, on my team,  beat (Justin) Koethe (from Iowa City West), who’s ranked high. I was so happy for him and I told him, “You worked so hard for this.” If there was any way I could split it with him, I would gladly do it. If I didn’t get it and he got it, I would have been so happy for him. I really had no clue that I would win it.

WIN: It doesn’t get any easier for you. Lockport is going back to the Cheesehead Tournament (in Kaukauna, Wisc.) again this year (Jan. 6-7, 2012). You may get a chance to go against (No. 1) Devin Peterson (of Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln High). Have you wrestled him before? What kind of challenge does he present for you?
Johnson: I would love to have a shot at him. He’s been in my bracket several times before, but I’ve lost some close matches before I had a chance to get to wrestle him. He doesn’t really do anything fancy — he just wrestles really solid and doesn’t make mistakes. I’m going to have to take good shots and finish them, work some front headlocks and see where that gets me. He knows me, and I know him, so it’s going to come down to who wants it more, I think.

WIN: That will be the start of the second half of the season. You’ll be getting ready to go for your second state title. What will you do working on and concentrating on as you get ready to finish your high school career?
Johnson: I’ve had a chance to wrestle a lot of really good kids already, because we wrestle a really tough schedule at Lockport, so that’s been a big confidence builder. I’d like to have an undefeated senior season, and I know there are some tough guys still to wrestle. But when I get into a tough match, I think about all the hard work I’ve put in, and all our coaches, like (head) coach (Josh) Oster have done for us to make us better. You find a way to get to that tournament in the spring, and you find a way to work through it when you get tired. You work through it for moments like that. And when you win that final match, that’s one of the things that makes all of that worthwhile.

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