‘The Tessa effect’: How NCAA champ Tessa Johnson is inspiring girls in her hometown

In St. Michael-Albertville, Johnson has long inspired younger players.

NCAA Iowa South Carolina Basketball

While the nation tuned in to watch Iowa’s record-breaking star Caitlin Clark last Sunday, residents of a Minnesota town focused on University of South Carolina freshman Tessa Johnson.

For years, she’s been a celebrity for girls basketball players at St. Michael-Albertville schools, where she graduated last year.

“We cheer for everything, we watch every game,” said fifth grader Harper Anderson.

Harper said she has a Polaroid picture with Johnson, hanging in her locker. She has lined up to meet Johnson and cherishes a t-shirt she once threw into the crowd.

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“I caught one from her one time and thought it was the best thing ever,” said Harper, who dreams of being a professional basketball player. “She shows us that we can do something if we don’t give up. And me and my friend, we all do some of the drills she used to do.”

Seventh grader Annabelle Vossen said she has three pictures with Johnson, as well as signed posters.

“We definitely talk about her a lot because she’s set such a high standard for everyone. Everyone just tries to be just as good as her,” Vossen said. “Everyone wants to be just like her. Everyone wishes to be her. She’s just really important to everyone.”

St. Michael-Albertville activities director Keith Cornell calls it “the Tessa effect.” She’s an inspiration to young girls. Kids will see her play a game, then go outside to shoot baskets in the rain.Walls of a school with student athlete placards Johnson’s former high school coach Kent Hamre remembers the start of her basketball career. She was in second grade — and getting pulled up to play with the fifth graders.

“And I knew back then that she was going to be pretty special,” he said.

On Sunday, Hamre crammed into a local movie theater with about 125 people, collectively cheering as the South Carolina freshman raked up a collegiate career high of 19 points on the big screen. They watched as Johnson helped bring the Gamecocks to victory, 87-75 over the Iowa Hawkeyes.

In the words of LeBron James, who shouted Johnson out on social media during the NCAA championship game (that got a big reaction in the theater): “Tessa Johnson cooking!!”

The national audience has dialed in.

In her first year at the University of South Carolina, Johnson helped the Gamecocks play an undefeated season. But just last year, she led the St. Michael-Albertville high school girls basketball team to victory in the state championship game. She was named Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year, Minnesota Miss Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American player, finishing her high school career with over 2,100 points.A framed jersey Yet, even before that, the community was keyed into her trajectory — watching her start varsity games in eighth grade and drill three-pointers in the activities center.

“And now on the big stage,” Hamre said. “Everybody got to see what we’ve been watching for the last 10, 12 years.”

The experience was particularly surreal for her old teammates, they said, having played with her recently. The calm confidence Johnson displayed on Sunday was familiar.

They know Johnson’s work ethic — how she would be at the gym at 5 a.m. and 9 p.m., up until close. They’ve goofed around on Starbucks runs together, laughing at Johnson’s propensity for cracking unexpected jokes. And they’ve felt, firsthand, Johnson’s commitment to playing with the team.

“She would get other girls involved and not just worry about ‘me, me, me,’” said STMA Senior Daysia Simmons, who played with Johnson for three years. “When it’s game time, it’s go time, and we’re all together. We’re all on one page. We’re all a team.”

Simmons said watching her friend go “crazy” on the court made her feel like a proud parent, but she looks up to her, too.

“I told her, I was like ‘I’ve looked up to you my whole life and playing with you was just, honestly, the best thing ever. It’s crazy to play with your role model,” she said. “And I got to do that.”

Johnson was invested in the growth of her own teammates, said junior Abby Hoselton, who remembers a particular game when she ended the first half with 19 points and Johnson declared, “I’m getting you to 30.”

Sophomore Cail Jahnke said Johnson is like “a big sister” who helped push her beyond what she thought she could accomplish.

“Hopefully I have the opportunity to play college basketball because I really would like to do that,” Jahnke said. “She’s just someone that I would love to go in her footsteps and just try and be like her.”Three people stand together and smile Back home and across the country, Johnson’s got a growing reputation as one of the most promising young basketball players nationwide. But to those who have spent time with her, she has another reputation.

“As good as a basketball player she is,” Cornell said. “She’s a better human being.”

A new principal, noticing Johnson’s kindness on display in the cafeteria, wanted to know more about her, Cornell remembered.

“One day he said, ‘Hey, who’s that kid?’ And he goes, ‘I’ve noticed every day she sits at a different lunch table.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s Tessa Johnson,’” he said. “As a ninth grader, she comes into this building, and she sat with different people at lunch every day. It wasn’t the same lunch table. I get goosebumps just telling that story now.”

Cornell said the inspiration she feeds others transcends her playing.

“But then because of being this amazing human off the court,” he said. “It’s transpired to being a great basketball player and a great human on the court as well.”

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