D.J. Johnson's fondest memory of his senior season at East High has nothing to do with any of the numerous dominating wins he racked up as the best prep boys tennis player in Kern County.
Johnson's biggest thrill came when the Blades defeated Tehachapi 5-4 in the Central Section Division II quarterfinals.
"That was the most fun," Johnson said. "They were the fourth seed, and we were the fifth seed. We were almost down 4-2 and ended up winning."
It's not surprising to East coach Chris Combs that Johnson would feel that way.
"He's the best team player you could have," Combs said. "He's always out there trying to motivate the guys, hitting with everybody, trying to get them better. The team comes first. It's not about him and what he accomplishes individually."
Johnson accomplished just about everything he could as an individual, posting a 30-1 singles record and winning a fourth straight Southeast Yosemite League singles title. Incredibly, Johnson didn't lose a single set all year until he was beaten by Visalia-El Diamante's Ryan Andrada in the section championship match.
With those stats and accolades, it's easy to see why Johnson is The Californian's All-Area Boys Tennis Player of the Year. It’s the third straight year that Johnson, who finished his time at East with a 116-8 singles record, has been chosen for the award.
The past two seasons he has gone undefeated except for a pair of section finals losses to Andrada.
“It was pretty tough (to lose), but I felt this year it really wasn’t in my hands as much as last year,” Johnson said. “This year I thought Ryan played an incredibly good tennis match. I didn’t feel like it was (a loss) because I necessarily played a horrible match … It would have been nice to win the whole thing and go undefeated, but I’m OK saying, to an extent, second place is still pretty good. I can’t be too disappointed in that performance.”
Despite similar overall results, Johnson believes he was a better player this year than he was as a junior.
“I wouldn’t say I got necessarily a lot better, but I changed my game in a way where I could compete more against college players and play more like adult tennis,” Johnson said. “I had to take a few steps backward to eventually be able to get better. But by the end of the year, I felt like I was playing better than I was before.”
Johnson’s two biggest adjustments were to his forehand and serve, as he added more power to both shots.
Johnson, whose parents have been members of Bakersfield Racquet Club since he can remember, began playing tennis at age 9. Not longer afterward, he began playing the sport competitively.
Back in April, Johnson defended his U18 Central California Junior tennis title. He’s currently ranked No. 28 in Southern California’s U18 division by the United States Tennis Association.
Combs believes Johnson’s success on the tennis court can be attributed to his mental toughness.
“There’s something in him,” Combs said. “It’s that will to win. That desire to dig deep and lay it all out there. He’s just real mentally tough on the court. He doesn’t give up, and he rarely gets mad. He finds a way to beat you. He’s going to grind out every point. There’s not going to be anything left in the tank when he’s done.”
As a sophomore, Johnson used his mental toughness and tremendous skills to lead East to its first Central Section boys tennis championship in the school’s then-72-year history. Nothing has compared to that for Johnson during his four years playing for East.
Despite falling just short of reaching his goal of winning a section individual singles title this past season, Johnson remembers his senior year in a positive light.
“Looking back, the first things that come to mind are winning a league title and playing some good matches at Valley before the final,” he said. “It was just a lot of happy memories with all the friends and stuff. I’m really going to miss high school tennis: my coach, my teammates and all the local guys I played against.”
Johnson, who graduated from East with a 3.0 grade-point average, is currently taking summer classes at Bakersfield College. He plans on staying at BC until the spring semester, when he’ll head to Vanguard University (Costa Mesa) to study kinesiology or business and begin his college tennis career.
“He’s just such a good kid,” Combs said. “How he’s grown as a person (the past four years) is really what stands out the most. He has represented us and East so well. That just means so much.”