Cent striker gets 2 wake-up calls

Saugus High senior James Johnson has scored 12 goals through 12 games this season. Dan Watson/The Signal

In life, not everyone gets a wake-up call.

Saugus High senior James Johnson has had two.

The first forced him to value life and his mother, Beverly. The second is soccer related and should make Foothill League rivals nervous.

That is, if they aren’t already wary of marking Johnson, who scored 20 goals during the 2015-16 season, his first on varsity.

MORE: 2017 Foothill boys soccer preview

The forward’s touch, speed and powerful leg led to All-Foothill League and All-Santa Clarita Valley first-team honors and a spot on the All-CIF Southern Section Division 4 team.

In attendance for most of the highlights was Beverly — something James didn’t take for granted.

In November 2015, James was attending a Sadie Hawkins dance one night, when his dad, Riel, contacted him and asked that he come home.

Beverly wasn’t feeling well. She’d vomited and was experiencing chest pain.

Riel readied the family’s vehicle for a trip to the hospital, and James went upstairs.

He found Beverly unconscious on the bathroom floor. She’d had a heart attack.

“I remember feeling just terrified,” says James, who couldn’t fight back images of life without his mom.

He talked to the operator while Riel performed CPR. Emergency personnel rushed Beverly to the hospital, where she remained in the intensive care unit for a week.

James Johnson of Saugus High Soccer. Dan Watson/The Signal
James Johnson of Saugus High Soccer. Dan Watson/The Signal

She made a full recovery in about six weeks. But the night’s impact lingered on James, who began to cherish being around his mom — not to mention appreciating all she did for him: the laundry, the family meals, the support at games, the fact that Beverly worked full time to help support the family.

“He was more expressive about being glad that I’m still here,” Beverly says. “Then it’s easy to get back to normal when I’m back to normal. But I think we all appreciate life more. We talk about it all the time: We are so lucky it came out the way it came out.”

“I thought my life would completely change that night,” James says. “I guess it did, but in a good way.”

“It made me realize that you need to really appreciate the people you love because they could be taken from you at any moment.”

The spark for Johnson’s second wake-up call is harder to pinpoint. Coming off a stellar 2015-16 season in which he led Saugus to the CIF quarterfinals for the first time since 2007, Johnson entered this season with his eyes honed a little too intently on the school’s single-season goal record of 30, set by Nate Wright Jr. in the mid-90s.

Johnson scored two goals in the season opener, a 3-0 win over Burbank on Nov. 28. Then Saugus dropped back-to-back games to Crescenta Valley and Taft by a combined score of 5-1.

A light went on.

“I realized that when I came into this season only focused on my personal stats in the first couple games, I didn’t play as well,” Johnson says. “I was more selfish, just trying to do what’s best for me rather than setting up teammates.”

Johnson decided that couldn’t continue.

He began looking to score within a larger team concept, working with fellow forward Josh De Leon to create scoring opportunities.

Saugus forward James Johnson (9) runs over Lancaster goal keeper Darwin Chavez to make a shot on goal in the first half at Saugus High School on Tuesday. Dan Watson/The Signal
Saugus forward James Johnson (9) runs over Lancaster goalkeeper Darwin Chavez to make a shot on goal in the first half at Saugus High School on Tuesday. Dan Watson/The Signal

“We’ve been more fluid as an attacking force,” De Leon says of whether he’s seen a change lately in Johnson.

The Centurions have lost just once since the Taft game, reeling off five wins and three ties with Foothill League play looming Tuesday.

“I feel like we are coming together just at the right time,” Saugus coach Seth Groller said after his team’s 6-0 win over Lancaster earlier this week.

Still, Saugus knows who its most dangerous weapon is.

Johnson scored four goals and assisted on another against Lancaster. He’s scored 12 goals through 12 games on the year.

“James who?” Groller joked on Tuesday.

Then he continued, “J.J. is definitely a special player. … His leadership is one thing and then just his play and his vision on the field and his speed. He’s one of those players who you just knew when he was coming in as a freshman that he was going to be a special player for us.”

Back then, Johnson couldn’t have known what his high school career would hold.

But he knows now how lucky he is to have Beverly watching. And his focus has shifted to one main goal: securing Saugus’ first Foothill League title since 2008.

“I think God knows how important soccer is to me, and He’s kind of giving me as many chances as I need to be able to look at life and soccer and everything differently,” Johnson says. “I’m very grateful.”

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