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Assistant basketball coach's pedigree will benefit EF

McKeesport grad Amy Johns was recently hired as an assitant boys basketball coach at Elizabeth Forward. Johns is only one of a handful of women who coach boys at the WPIAL level. Courtesy California (Pa.)

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Saturday, July 7, 2012, 1:31 a.m.

When Gerald Grayson was hired last week to take over the Elizabeth Forward boys basketball team, he fielded a phone call from Chrissy French, an assistant coach at McKeesport during Grayson's 13-year tenure there.

French was calling to pitch one of her former players, Amy Johns, for an assistant coaching job at EF, and it took Grayson one conversation with Johns to realize that she would make a great addition to his staff.

Basketball, Grayson likes to say, is basketball. Whether you're 60 years old playing in a Sunday night church league or, in this case, a 23-year-old female instructing high school boys.

“She's a basketball player,” Grayson said of Johns, a former forward at California (Pa.) University. “She knows what she's doing. If I felt she had a girly attitude, I wouldn't have picked her. But she is a basketball player. Point blank.”

And a darn good one, too.

Johns scored 2,067 points at McKeesport and led the WPIAL in scoring as a junior. A four-time all-section pick, she helped the Tigers win a pair of PIAA Class AAAA tournament berths and was a three-time Street & Smith's All-America Honorable Mention pick, including when she averaged 25.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.6 steals as a senior.

After brief stops at Robert Morris and Xavier, Johns found a home at Cal U and became a three-year starter for the Vulcans. She averaged a career-high 18.5 points as a senior — scoring more than 20 points in 11 games — and led the Vulcans to their 12th consecutive postseason appearance.

Johns was named the PSAC West Player of the Year this winter and became a two-time first team All-PSAC selection.

Grayson, who spent four years at Duquesne High School after leaving McKeesport following the 1997-98 season, coached against Johns and always had a difficult time figuring out a way to stop his new assistant.

“I coached against her when I was at Duquesne, and she was very difficult to make a defense for because whatever you prepped, she just busted through it,” Grayson said. “She could shoot the three, she could drive to the hoop. What I liked about her the most, she wasn't afraid of contact; whenever she drove, she made sure you would foul her and get to the foul line. She brings little stuff that most people don't even think about.”

Grayson plans on using Johns as his “offensive coordinator,” relying on her to teach an up-tempo philosophy to his offense. Johns, meanwhile, hopes to instill some defensive principles in her new post.

“I want it to be fast-paced,” Johns said. “Ultimately, with how I was brought up with basketball, offense wins games, defense wins championships. Our strength will be defense, but on the offensive side, we know we need to score because, at the end of the game, it's who scores the most points.”

Grayson and Johns are in charge of an Elizabeth Forward program that has cycled through five coaches since 2007. The Warriors, despite finishing 13-11 overall, 5-7 in Section 4-AAA and reaching the WPIAL Class AAA tournament, lost five senior starters from last year's team and will undergo a major rebuilding effort.

Guess it's a good thing that Grayson has somebody that has been a starter ever since she stepped on the court at McKeesport, the same program her new boss — and his top pupil, Swin Cash — brought to prominence.

“The boys game is quicker, but that's really the only difference I see between the two,” said Johns, who has been putting in 90-hour work weeks helping mentally handicapped adults with a company called Pennsylvania MENTOR and working at a summer camp in Washington, Pa.

“I don't see male, female, black or white,” Johns said. “I've just always thought basketball to be basketball.”

Jason Mackey is a freelance writer.

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