Justin Johnson knew a lot of outsiders didn’t have high expectations.
The important thing is he did.
Johnson is a senior sweeper on the Northeast High School soccer team, and few thought the Vikings would be back as one of the best teams in the Public League.
Sure, history was on their side. Northeast had won the past four Public League championships and during that time, it has been one of the best programs in the city. But this year, there was a lot to replace.
Northeast graduated the bulk of its starting lineup, and two players moved out of the area, so they transferred. That left a lot of holes.
But the Vikings did have Johnson, and while he didn’t have a lot of returning players to work with, he did have the leadership skills, and along with coach Kraig Feldman, he knew this year could be another special one.
So far, he’s right.
“I don’t know if I expected us to be as good as we’ve been, but I knew we’d be really good,” said Johnson, who lives across the street from the school. “Honestly, I really felt we would be good because we had good guys ready to step in.”
That’s exactly what Johnson has done his entire career.
Prior to last year, Johnson was a junior varsity player. During his freshman and sophomore campaigns, he sat in the stands as he watched Northeast win Public League championships. Last year, he was one of the players holding the plaque when the final whistle sounded.
“I got a lot better playing on the JV team, I learned a lot,” Johnson said. “Last year, I was ready to play. We had a lot of good players around me, and I was able to learn from them and get better. They helped me a lot.”
Last year, Johnson was still learning.
And, truth be told, he’s still learning. But this year, he’s wearing a different hat. This year, he’s the veteran passing on help to the underclassmen.
And he’s pretty strict as a captain.
“I make sure they work hard on the field, but I also make sure they do what they’re supposed to do in school,” Johnson said. “If they need help anywhere, I’ll help them. I do OK in school, and I’ll help them there if they need it, but nobody has needed it.
“In soccer, I try to help them, too. You need good leaders to win. We’ve had that every year. I think the coaches made me a captain because I will do whatever we need. If someone needs help or something, I’ll be there. I try to help.”
He’s helping a lot.
Northeast isn’t doing a very good job rebuilding. The Vikings are 7–0 in Public League play and are in great shape heading into the end of their regular season. Still on the slate is a meeting against Central, which spoiled a perfect Public League season for Northeast a season ago. But the Vikings got the best of their rivals when they won a rematch in the championship game.
The game is important, although the Lancers have already lost a Public League game to Philadelphia Academy Charter. A Central win would put it in a tie in the standings with both the Vikings and the Chargers.
For Johnson, it’s an important game because it’s on the schedule.
“We just look at our next game,” Johnson said. “We’re not looking at the playoffs yet, we’re focused on every game. We have a good team, but we’re not good enough to look ahead. We have to play every game like it’s important.”
Johnson also knows his role on the field is important. And he enjoys it because it’s a pressure position that can impact the game.
“I love it because I see the whole field and I’m the last guy back other than the goalie,” Johnson said. “I have to make sure I see everything and let everyone know what is happening. You always have to be aware of what’s going on, and you have to help your teammates because you see everything.”
Next year, Johnson hopes to continue his career on the pitch. He’s looking at Penn State Abington right now, and would love to play for the Nittany Lions.
“I really like the location of the school and the program,” said Johnson, who is unsure what course of study he will take. “I think it’s a lot like Northeast.”
That’s high praise considering how Johnson looks at his current team.
“We have great team chemistry, I love everything about it,” Johnson said. “We’ve bonded with each other. We all have a great work ethic and we all love playing together, not just in games but in practice. I think that’s what makes us such a strong team.”
It’s also why outsiders shouldn’t be surprised at the continued success of the program.