Versatile Nick Johnson takes pride in Niles West’s rise

SHARE Versatile Nick Johnson takes pride in Niles West’s rise

GLENVIEW — A star safety, running back and special-teamer, Niles West senior Nick Johnson was called on to play slot receiver last week in the absence of the injured Garrett Iverson.

Just as he has throughout three varsity seasons, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Johnson came through in a big way. He caught eight passes for 134 yards and a touchdown, even though the Wolves (6-3 overall, 2-3 CSL South) lost 30-20 at Glenbrook South.

“I had to pick up more of the load this past week, more than usual,” Johnson said. “Free safety is usually more my role, but I had to step up more on offense.”

Despite three losses in a row, the No. 12-seeded Wolves head into the Class 8A playoffs for a second straight season when they visit No. 5 Maine South (7-2) at 4 p.m. Saturday. The back-to-back postseason appearances come after the program had gone eight years without making the playoffs.

Coach Scott Baum said Johnson, a second-year captain, has been instrumental in the program’s transformation.

“Like I say, he’s the poster boy for change,” Baum said. “I met him and his dad (Richard) when Nick was in the fourth or fifth grade and I was in my first year (as an assistant) here. He’s been around for everything we’ve done since he was a freshman. He’s been our point guy as far as change goes.

“(Johnson) has embraced the leadership role. He’s got a personality where kids want to be around him and be better like him. When I ask my (own) children who their favorite player is, they say Nick Johnson.”

The Wolves went 2-7 Johnson’s sophomore year and improved to 5-5 last season. This season, the three-game losing streak includes a 35-20 loss to Maine South on Oct. 11. Niles West trailed just 14-6 at halftime.

The performance against a Maine South team that has won 65 consecutive CSL South games gives the Wolves confidence heading into Saturday’s rematch.

“I think we felt like we could move the ball on them,” Johnson said. “Down the stretch, we shot ourselves in the foot with penalties and dropped passes. It’s really just the little things, more the mental aspect of the game than the physical game. We know physically we can play with them.”

Regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s game, Johnson and the rest of the Wolves senior class can take pride in how they have improved Niles West’s football reputation within the conference, the school and the community.

“We created a new image of Niles West,” said Johnson, who is receiving interest from college programs in NCAA Division I FCS and Division II. “For a few years, (Niles West football) was a joke in the conference and we weren’t winning too many games. But the past two years, we’re not a joke anymore. We’ve shown we can play with the big boys this year.

“When I first started on varsity, there was not really the support of the school. The games weren’t very crowded and people didn’t really believe in the program. Now, you walk through the hallways on a Friday and people are pumped up. After games, we go to Buffalo Wild Wings and people come up to you and say, ‘You guys are doing great this year!’ It’s fun to be a part of it.”

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