By Dylan Manfre
Known for the energy she brings on the court, women’s basketball junior guard Amari Johnson found herself watching the game she loves from the sideline for nearly two years.
Johnson was forced to sit out after she transferred from the University of Rhode Island to Rider due to an NCAA rule that requires students who transfer to complete one academic year before participating in a game or traveling with the team.
“It was a year and a half because as soon as I finished my season at Rhode Island, I didn’t have a team,” Johnson said. “I had to get in the gym on my own which was tough because the team had access to the gym and I wasn’t on the team anymore. When I committed [to Rider,] it was tough because I couldn’t play in games.”
The rule deprived Johnson of many key bonding experiences with her new team. She said the entire process took a toll on her mental state.
“Not being able to play in games but still having to practice was a hard hit to my mentality,” Johnson said. “That was my fault because I didn’t have the mentality to say ‘Even though you’re not playing in games, you still need to get on the court and do your extra stuff.’”
Head Coach Lynn Milligan sympathized with the challenges Johnson faced as she navigated her way through the process.
“You’re still practicing everyday but it’s not the same as game day,” Milligan said. “It’s the competitiveness of game day and the thrill of putting your uniform on; you forget that. So, it takes some time to get that back and I think what we’re seeing from her now is her best.”
Rider missed out on signing Johnson out of high school, but once she officially left Rhode Island, Johnson reached out to her former Amateur Athletic Union coach, Tina Klotzbeecher-Thomas, and encouraged her to contact the schools that previously showed interest.
Johnson said Rider immediately came to mind because of how close it is to her hometown of Red Lion, Pennsylvania, roughly a two hour drive from campus.
Throughout the year and a half Johnson wasn’t playing, she said her parents were always supportive and were excited she chose Rider so they could attend every home game.
“My family has always been my main support system. My mom was more excited than me that I was leaving Rhode Island because it wasn’t the best situation for me,” Johnson said. “My extended family is 15 minutes away [from Rider] so they can come to any game they want. My family has been a big supporter of my decisions. Being at a school that was much closer to home was a big factor.”
In a preseason scrimmage against TCNJ on Nov. 1, Johnson scored a team-high 20 points, had five rebounds and recorded three steals in 19 minutes of action off the bench.
She knew she could score, but she didn’t expect to perform so well after her time away from the court.
“The TCNJ scrimmage was my first real game in a year and a half so it was exciting,” Johnson said. “How I’m doing now is based off hard work. I put in the work now that I know I have to. You can’t go on the court and just expect to be good with having regular talent.”
Johnson said the feeling of putting on her No. 31 jersey and playing for the first time was a special moment.
“That first game was nostalgic,” Johnson said with a smile. “It was an amazing feeling to finally be able to put on my jersey.”
Johnson started all but one game for the Broncs and immediately contributed to their success and emerged as the multifaceted guard Milligan knew she would be.
“I think Amari has a strong versatility that we like,” Milligan said. “She has length, she can score, she’s developed her three-point shot this season, she can go off the dribble and has been a terrific defender for us.”
The heart and passion Johnson had for the game was rekindled once she arrived at Rider. It has been contagious over the course of the Broncs’ campaign as she’s in the middle of the pregame huddle hyping the team up before they take the floor.
Milligan said Johnson is the kind of player that brings that energy to each game.
“They decided to put me in the middle of the circle because I have that loud voice,” Johnson said. “I have that ability to hype everybody up before the game. That was just an honor from them to me.”
After the up-and-down journey that led her to Rider, Johnson feels like it was all for the best. Although she had to fight through difficulties during the transfer process, she has found a home at Rider.
“I’ve grown so much as a player and a person,” Johnson said. “Everybody says everything happens for a reason. I was supposed to go to Rhode Island and figure out that wasn’t the right decision for me. I’ve learned a lot in terms of my mental strength, mental toughness and ability to bounce back from setbacks.”
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