Whenever Art St. Martin visited the Old Mill gymnasium last winter, the one player he most wanted to see -- and recruit for his Catonsville Community College women's basketball team -- sat at the end of thebench.
And rarely, if ever, moved.
"Every time I went to see her play, she didn't play," said St. Martin, who won six state championships at Brooklyn Park before moving on to Catonsville three years ago.
He now understands how this worked to his advantage, especially during the state final, when senior guard Sandy Johnson played sparingly in Old Mill's victory over Springbrook.
A lack of interest from college scouts cleared the way forSt. Martin to bring Johnson to Catonsville, where she is expected tostart tonight against Anne Arundel Community College.
"At that time, I was glad she wasn't playing," he said, "because I was afraid someone else would see her."
They wouldn't have been looking at the same player who made third-team All-County as a junior in a year marked by exceptional guards.
A pulled thigh muscle that caused her tomiss the first month of the season, and a dramatic weight gain that slowed both the healing process and the player, robbed the 5-foot-4 Johnson of her precious skills. And the young Old Mill team of valu
"She should have been an All-Metro guard. She's got all the tools," said Patriots coach Pat Chance. "Her junior year,when her weight was down, she could shoot the eyes out of the basket, and she was such a good defensive player. But then she got hurt andslowed down last year, and that took her right out of there."
Andit landed her on the bench, a place that never grew
comfortable for someone who had been a starter since ninth grade, someone whose 14points a game led the team in scoring the previous season.
She appeared in 20 games, though usually for short periods, and averaged 6.1 points. She had a few shining moments, like 13- and 12-point outings against Severna Park last January, but never -- literally -- recaptured her old form.
"I was kind of being lazy over the summer," said Johnson, 18, whose weight increased from 130 pounds as a freshman to between 150 and 155 as a senior. "Once tryouts came around the corner, I wasn't in shape. Then, after I hurt my leg, while everyone elsewas running, I just sat and watched. And even after it got better, Iwas in such bad shape that it was hard getting myself together.
"After the injury, it was like, 'Oh my God, I'm not starting.' I'd been starting since the ninth grade. I never had dealt with not playing before. I wasn't ever afraid of losing my spot before, but now I had to face that.
"Ms. Chance and I had a pretty good relationship, but I think she was more concerned with her team and how it would do next year then with my injury. Plus, I didn't show the attitude that I really wanted to play anymore because I was so upset and was just waiting for the season to be over with. I guess she figured if I didn't want to play, she'd find someone else who would."
Even with so many options to chose from on a roster brimming with talent, Chance saidshe never forgot about Johnson.
"I tried very hard to work her back into lineup, but when I put her in there, she couldn't do it," Chance said. "She wasn't in good physical shape, plus she got off to theslow start because of the injury. I thought she'd be the one to helpus win the state tournament."
Instead, Johnson says, "By my senior year, it was like I disappeared."
Even her desire to return to the court gradually dissipated.
A moment that epitomized her lost season came in the state final, when she only made a brief appearance after having scored 10 points against Largo in the semifinals.
"I felt once I got into the last game, everyone's eyes were on me, like 'What's she going to do, mess up or be the old Sandy Johnson.' Then Igot into the game and said, 'Oh man, I can't do this,' and I sat back down," she said.
"I felt like the whole year was wasted. We won the state title, but I didn't feel a part of it. That really hurt a lot."
The healing process accelerated with St. Martin's interest.
Slowed by a virus, Johnson wasn't able to start Catonsville's firsttwo games against Harford last Friday and Hagerstown Monday. But shecame off the bench to score 22 points as the Cardinals went 1-1.
Having moved from the point to off-guard, Johnson went 3-for-6 from three-point range and scored 15 points in the 65-55 loss to Hagerstown.
"She's getting stronger and stronger," St. Martin said. "At 5-4,she's stockily built, but the thing that's extremely surprising to me is she's probably the quickest one on the team. She's been playing the top girls on the other teams whenever we go to a straight man-to-man defense, and she's done really well for me so far. I just hope she can keep it up."
Johnson believes she will, especially now that she's more conscious of her weight, which also must be kept down because of her asthma.