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Senior star comes back for the playoffs after ACL surgery, scores huge goal for Crusaders

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit senior Samir Johnson celebrates his first-half score against Grants Pass in the Class 6A quarterfinals.

Samir Johnson slammed his left leg into the Cronin Field surface, planting his heavily bandaged appendage to stabilize his body and to swing through his right kicking leg with power.

There was no hesitation, no mental block protruding the Jesuit boys soccer senior forward from laying all his physical force into the shot midway through the first half of the Crusaders' Class 6A quarterfinal skirmish with Grants Pass. Just seven and a half months after tearing his ACL, Johnson had willed himself back onto the pitch, vowing he would return in time for when the games mattered most, for matches and moments like this.

And, so with one violent, abrupt rip of the ball, Johnson buried an 18-yard score to give Jesuit a 1-0 first-half lead.

The Cavemen couldn't equal the score in the second half as the No. 1 Crusaders advanced to the 6A semifinals against South Eugene on Tuesday.

"I've been looking forward to this for so long," Johnson said. "I've pictured myself playing in the playoffs almost every day. To be here in the semifinals just feels so good. This is my senior season, this is the playoffs. If I can be that impact that gets us to the final and wins a championship, honestly, I'd go through the process of tearing my ACL against to just win a state championship. I haven't won one yet, so it's at the top of my priority list."

Normally, a damaged ACL takes almost a full year to heal and some athletes say it takes two years to get back to their original form. Johnson tore his knee up trying out a pair of new cleats that lodged in the grass and didn't displace last spring.

He immersed himself in the rehabilitation process, pouring every ounce of strength and energy he had into returning for at least the tail end of his senior season. Coming back during Metro League play wasn't feasible. But Johnson said he knew he could accelerate the rehab with due diligence and a specific, intricate plan to see the pitch in the playoffs and a heavy dose of motivation. His doctors and physical therapist hesitated to let Johnson try out the leg earlier than anticipated. Johnson isn't even listed on Jesuit's roster. There was no pressure to play from the Crusader coaching staff to hustle back. But the senior couldn't be kept out of the lineup for long.

"I pictured it like a set of stairs," Johnson explained. "You go up one stair and it's 'Ok I can walk without crutches, Ok I can bend and flex my knee.' Once you go up five or 10 stairs you look back and think 'Wow, I've gone so far, but I still have so far to go.' But once I got back to practice I only had one or two more steps to and go then I was there. That just drove me so much."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit senior Griffin Langsdorf heads a ball against Grants Pass in the Class 6A quarterfinals.

Of the eight shots Jesuit earned in the first half, the toughest look of all netted the only goal of the game. With 12 minutes to go in the first half, Johnson split a seemingly impossible nutmeg shot between the legs of a Caveman defender and past a bushel of Grants Pass players into the right corner of the net to go up 1-0. Marked completely on the ball with a wall of Cavemen to curl his shot around near the net, Johnson put the perfect amount of power and precision on the 18-yard score that brought the Jesuit contingent to its feet as the Crusaders sprinted over toward the stands in exultation.

"At this level ... if you have too much power, the shot is just going to go straight to the keeper. And if it's all precision the keeper's just going to walk over and get it," Johnson said. "I had to aim at the back corner, but still hit it hard enough that the keeper, even if he hit it, would still go in."

The fact Johnson trusted his body and came out better than ever after forcefully plunging his surgically repaired knee into the ground to get the necessary leverage was an omen going forward as well.

"I know all that work I put in every single day when I was injured, all those left leg exercises I did, finally paid off," Johnson said. "To know that didn't go to waste is really hard to describe, but it just feels really good."

The second half had a bit of everything. Sadly, Jesuit senior Griffin Langsdorf suffered a gruesome knee injury that required immediate medical attention and vehicle escort off Cronin Field. Grants Pass' goalie got a yellow card after getting into a physical confrontation with Jesuit's Cesar Cruz around the net and exited the pitch in a huff, choking back tears. The final 10 minutes of a close boys soccer match are some of the most physical instances of sport you'll see. Desperation sets in and the officials tend to swallow their whistles as they did on Saturday. But the Crusaders' veteran leadership guided Jesuit through the ups and downs of the emotion and helped them finish out the game without too much conflict.

"We had to keep our wits and I think we did a good job of that," Johnson said. "We couldn't pick up petty fouls pushing people and stuff like that."

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