Lava Bears go as their Superman does

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By: Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

Cohl Johnston emphasizes the team aspect. He uses “we” instead of “I,” “us” instead of “me.” Certainly the Bend High junior is sincere.

But just a few minutes earlier on this warm Saturday afternoon at Bend’s 15th Street Field, after helping the Bend High boys lacrosse team take out Central Catholic 15-8, Johnston peeled off his jersey and pads to reveal what was beneath: a sleeveless shirt emblazoned with the Superman shield. With the way Johnston has torn through opponents through five games this season, that logo seems most appropriate.

The No. 3-ranked Lava Bears (4-1 overall) are the top scoring team in the Oregon High School Lacrosse Association, averaging more than 18 goals per game. And at the forefront is Johnston, a midfielder/attacker/long stick midfielder/defenseman who has piled up 31 goals through five games — a goals-per-game clip of 6.2 that is better than 16 teams in the OHSLA.

“He has this drive, this won’t-be-denied attitude that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a high school kid,” says Bend coach Joe Kerwin. “So when he gets the ball in his stick, you just know that, if he wants to, he could probably score at any moment. He’ll run through a wall, if he has to, to do it.”

Johnston is not the most physically imposing player on the field, standing an average 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing 180 pounds. But do not dare stand in his way as he barrels upfield. Some players have. And many of them have been left in Johnston’s wake.

On Saturday, Central Catholic defenders were shoved aside or blown by as Johnston was determined to create goal-scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.

He drew double teams and saw openings in the Rams defense before those openings even developed, like when he rifled a pass that appeared heading into traffic but instead found the stick of Bend’s Mark Fish for a wide-open shot at the goal. Johnston hit the lacrosse equivalent of a fadeaway jumper in basketball, and he streaked downfield like a kick returner in football (which should not surprise, considering he returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the Lava Bears football team last fall).

Even with his team playing a man down because of a penalty, Johnston, wielding the long stick he often trades out for his shorter attack stick, weaved past Rams players, sprinting three-quarters the length of the field before finding Fish, who quickly connected with Brad Smith for a short-handed goal.

Truly, on a team that leads the state in scoring, Johnston has been the spark plug on a squad that features several big-time scorers.

“Sometimes when we’re down, we’ve got to get a pickup,” says a modest Johnston, an all-state midfielder last season. “It’s just one ground ball, one little hustle play, and then everyone starts to pick it up again.”

“If you watch him play, there’s probably not any one tangible quality where you’re like, ‘Wow. OK, that’s why he scores goals,’” Kerwin says. “Honestly, he’s not great at anything except for his mentality to not be denied. His attitude and his toughness is really what separates him.”

Determination has always been Johnston’s trademark, from the baseball-playing days of his youth — before he traded in the crack of the bat for the whip of a lacrosse stick — to his football-playing days at Bend High. Johnston is not the biggest player, he admits, but he will outwork anyone on the field. It shows. And the Lava Bears are reaping the rewards.

Take, for example, a game on this same 15th Street Field two years ago, when Johnston not only netted four goals and dished out three assists but also made a key hustle play that proved he will sacrifice his body for a Bend win. Late in that contest, Johnston remembers, he sprinted downfield, knocked over a Wilsonville player and jarred the ball loose. The Lava Bears collected the turnover and secured the victory. In the process, Johnston broke his right collarbone. Still, as a freshman, he was named to the all-High Desert Conference team.

Then there was Bend’s game last month in Pleasant Hill, California. Kerwin recalls one of the referees penalizing the Lava Bears so frequently that, the coach says, “it was kind of comical.” With Bend playing three players down early in the third quarter because of penalties, Johnston got angry. Rather than screaming at the official or any players or coaches, he took over the game — scoring twice despite a three-player disadvantage. as Bend cruised to a 21-10 win. “Cohl,” Kerwin says, “once he gets kind of pissed off, watch out.”

Playing at the attack this season, Johnston is a catalyst up front for Bend. He routinely finds the back of the net despite the considerable attention he commands from opponents, which opens up scoring opportunities for teammates, such as Fish, who had six goals against Central Catholic. And when Johnston’s teammates do flourish — like Chance Beutler going for three scores against Mountain View earlier this season — defenses begin to shift away from him. And Johnston makes them pay.

“We moved him to attack this year, just so we can keep him on the field. … We know how good of a player he is, so we really focus on getting him the ball, which I imagine some teams will start shutting him off or at least try to,” says Kerwin, noting how Bend is working on becoming a well-balanced attack to keep defenses guessing. But, he adds, “obviously he’s a great player. So you want to get him the ball.”

Kerwin is certain that his junior attacker can score “whenever he wants.” With a chuckle, Johnston admits it is difficult to NOT go after goals each time he has the ball. But, despite what his Superman shirt might imply, Johnston is not a one-man show.

“What stops me most of the time is it (taking over scoring duties alone) doesn’t always work,” he says. “You just have to realize that you miss a shot here and there, but you just have to take a step back, assess what’s going on and just go from there.

“We all play as a team. That’s what our strength is. It’s not just one person.”

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