Daniell Johnson has gone through some serious career adjustments the past two decades.
The 1996 Dodge County graduate worked at the prison in Eastman for seven years, and then he worked at an alternative school in the county for about seven years.
He then spent several years at his high school alma mater as a boys basketball assistant and then head coach.
Johnson joined the Houston County boys team as an assistant coach for the 2015-16 season. One day last spring, Houston County athletics director Von Lassiter called Johnson into the office after the school decided to make a change with the girls team.
“We talked about it,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘Have you ever thought about coaching girls?’ ”
“No” was the answer. But while waiting for the Bears’ boys to tip off on game nights, he’d watch the girls team.
After phone call later to longtime friend and quasi mentor Sug Parker, girls head coach at Washington County, and a glance at a game tape from a year earlier, Johnson got back with Lassiter the next day.
“I said, ‘Is the job still on the table?’ ” Johnson said. “I met with the girls that day.”
Good thing for the Bears, because they’re in the GHSA Class 6A playoffs in Johnson’s first year, and they have a favorable first-round matchup against a team that also doesn’t have a winning record, Heritage of Conyers.
Houston County is 12-12 and got the third seed — and better draw — with a 41-39 win over Coffee in the region tournament.
Houston County has struggled in girls basketball for several years. This is the Bears’ first state trip since the 2011-12 year, which broke a dry spell of several years. In other words, few senior classes in awhile have many playoff memories.
“They don’t know anything about the playoffs,” Johnson said. “They know nothing about it.”
Dodge County is more than used to playoff appearances. The Indians expect deep runs in the playoffs each season. So when Johnson showed up at Houston County, it was an adjustment. There was a bigger transition when he took over the girls program.
“I guess I was thinking the girls should have been way ahead,” he said, noting the lack of activity in summer basketball. “I’m coming from Dodge, and those girls in Dodge breathe basketball. ‘We should be way more ahead than what we are.’
As is usually the case when a male coach takes over a team of females for the first time, Johnson didn’t know what to expect.
What he got, he likes.
“With girls, I learned I can get onto them, and they’ve got a short-term memory,” he said. “Unlike boys. You get on boys, they pout and hold grudges for a few days. Girls, they’re pretty strong-minded.”
Johnson also like the makeup of the team, which was a major factor in him taking the job.
“One thing that attracted me was how big they were,” he said. “You’ve got five girls on the team at least 5-10, 5-11 or better. The way I coach, I’m old school. I believe in inside out.”
And there’s the mentality that fits a balanced team. Senior Autumn Ring leads with 10 points a game, and she passed 1,000 for her career last month. Madi Slappey, Natalie Averett, Destiny Pollard and Tamia Nelson are all around six points a game, with Nelson getting five steals and Pollard eight rebounds a game.
“There’s no one girl on the team that feels she can do it by herself,” Johnson said. “They feel like they all need each other. That’s a big change of pace.”
The expectations Johnson faced weren’t hefty. He said principal Doug Rizer told him to just win seven games, one more than last year. That goal was passed in the first game of 2017, a 51-50 win at Lee County, and the seniors finally got a win over Veterans.
“Like I told them (Wednesday), ‘Girls, if somebody would have told me at the beginning of the year that we were gonna finish .500, I wouldn’t have believed it,’ ” Johnson said. “Because of the work we had to put in from the first time I walked in the gym.
“It has been a roller coaster, now. But I’m pleased at where we’re at.”