Eyes on the prize

Friendly rivals from the foothills working hard for upcoming junior seasons
By: Joshua Ansley Journal Sports Writer
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While other college students are backpacking across Europe or partying till dawn, Emilie Johnson and Kasey Riecks are keeping busy with hoops. For Division I college basketball players like Johnson and Riecks, there is no such thing as a true offseason. “It is less rigorous during the offseason, but there really isn’t an offseason,” said Riecks, who starred at Placer High. “You don’t want to have to get completely back into shape once the season starts.” “I love the offseason,” said Johnson, a former four-year starting point guard at Del Oro. “You have enough time to improve in certain areas whereas during the season it’s all about getting the team ready.” The two girls were both two-time league MVPs in high school, Johnson for the Sierra Foothill League and Riecks for the Pioneer Valley League. They were also traveling teammates in their early years. Playing in AAU leagues and traveling across the country together provided both standout players with a firm connection. They won the AAU National Championship in Knoxville, Tenn. with the Pacific Pistols. “Playing on that team provided the foundation for our friendship,” Johnson said. “We are good friends,” added Riecks. “We always talk to each other before and after the games we play against each other. It’s always fun playing against Emilie.” Riecks, a forward for the UC Davis Aggies, and Johnson, a point guard with the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, will be returning to their respective teams as seasoned leaders. Although it is rare that a freshman plays one minute her first season, both girls were key contributors from the start. Johnson started 12 games her freshman year. Riecks started every game. During their sophomore seasons both girls played considerable minutes. Johnson averaged a little over 37 minutes a game while Riecks averaged a little over 27 minutes. The 2009-10 season was a very successful one for Riecks. The Aggies went 21-11 overall, and 12-4 in the Big West Conference, finishing in first place. They also went 8-0 in their conference home games. It was a slightly different season for Johnson’s Grouchos. They finished 15-17 overall, but above .500 in the conference at 9-7. Returning as juniors in the fall, both girls are using the summer to improve their skills and stay in shape. But both stress the importance of mental preparation as much as the physical during the offseason. “As much as it is a physical game, it’s a mental game, and my biggest goal this year is to be more of a leader on the mental side of things,” Riecks said. At point guard, Johnson’s mental preparation is essential for the rest of the team. “I’ve really been focusing on becoming a student of the game, knowing the game better mentally, and taking it to another level,” she said. “My point guard coach has inspired me to really become a student of the game and improve from a mental standpoint. At point you have to be in control.” Johnson has aspirations of not only playing overseas following her college career, but also coaching in some capacity. During her time at Del Oro she coached fifth and sixth graders. This summer she is coaching individual girls, helping them to become better players. According to her former high school coach Mike Takayama, Johnson has the perfect combination of talent, work ethic, and understanding that it takes to be a successful coach. “She is the best player to come through here (Del Oro) in all the years I’ve coached,” said Takayama, who won his 500th game at the school last season. “Our success now is due to her influence. The players we have now grew up wanting to be Emilie Johnson. She is a great role model, and always has time to spend with you.” Although her love of the game dominates her time now, Riecks, a managerial economics major, plans on diving into accounting and finance following school. While she is working out and playing in open gym on campus this summer, Riecks is gaining valuable experience working in accounting at a local business nearby. Not only are they the two best players to come out of the region in the last decade, they share remarkable personal characteristics. Both are one of four children. Both are excellent academic students. Both are genuine about taking time to make a difference in the community. Riecks and Johnson do share one startling difference. Riecks’ dad played water polo and her mom was a swimmer at UC Irvine. Her brother Cory plays volleyball at Pepperdine, and another brother is hoping to play volleyball this upcoming year at Placer. Her sister will run cross country at Placer this fall. Meanwhile Johnson is the lone athlete in her family. Regardless of that one difference, however, their success is a testament to mutual friendship, family support, and determination. “The goals I have in my life all stem from basketball,” Riecks said. “It’s always been the thing to keep me focused and moving forward.” Basketball has been the cornerstone of the girls’ friendship as well. “We have always been close rivals,” Johnson said. “It’s so much fun to have a friendship. It’s just really neat to see each other at events like the Big West Tournament earlier this year.” The girls will meet up again later this year. Although the Aggies lost two seniors from last year, Riecks is looking forward to this upcoming season. “We have a really good core of juniors and seniors who are going to step up,” Riecks said. Johnson is equally optimistic about the upcoming season. “We all feel like its going to be a special year,” Johnson said.