The Opelika Bulldogs and Beauregard Hornets are set to open the boys’ varsity basketball season today at 7:30 p.m. following the varsity girls’ matchup at 6 p.m. in Beauregard.
The Bulldogs and the Hornets are already plenty familiar with their neighbors but that familiarity will only grow this season with the promotion of former Opelika standout Justin Johnson to lead the Hornet basketball program.
“[Beauregard athletic director] Coach [Rob] Carter is like an uncle to me,” Johnson said. “When Coach [Carson] Grier left, he was a great coach, [Carter] asked me if I wanted be the coach and of course I wanted to be the coach.”
Johnson, a 2009 graduate of Opelika High, was a member of Opelika coach John Wadsworth’s first freshman team at Opelika when he joined the program. When Wadsworth was promoted to head coach in 2007, Johnson was a junior on the varsity team.
“He had a huge impact on me,” Johnson said. “He taught me accountability and though me it is bigger than basketball. He was actually one of the first ones to reach out to me when I actually got this job.
“I am real thankful for everything he did for me. I took a couple things out of his playbook and we will see how they work against him.”
After Johnson graduated from Opelika, he moved on to Troy University where he played football. Johnson returned to Lee County last season to teach at Beauregard and joined the coaching staffs with the football and basketball programs.
Tonight will be Johnson’s debut as a head coach for the Hornets. Johnson says he has already learned some of the rigors that go along with being a head coach and even called his old coach to apologize.
“I see now that dealing with kids is an art, it is a big art,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I actually apologized to him a couple months ago. I told him, ‘Coach, I’m sorry for everything we ever did as players because I see that I am getting it right back now.’”
While Johnson is excited to match wits with his mentor, he is not so certain that even his presence in Beauregard blue can convince his family to cheer against the Bulldogs tonight.
“They are telling me they aren’t going to wear blue, so I am trying to get them to wear blue,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we can pull it out so I can have some bragging rights.”
Johnson is excited about the experience the Hornets return, especially in the backcourt.
“Those guys are an extension of me on the court,” Johnson said. “I have nine senior guards so it always helps when I have those. There is a lot more management than there is coaching going on. You are only as good as your team anyway.”
The first-year head coach is hesitant to set any public expectations or goals for the season, but is certainly ready to see what this team is capable of, even if that begins tonight against his second-favorite team in Lee County.
“It is like a movie,” Johnson said. “I’m excited, I’m really anxious to play them and it is kind of bittersweet. I am a Bulldog forever, but at the same time, I am a Bulldog forever except for [this game].”
Johnson says he expects a winning mentality from his players though.
“I’m from Opelika so I am not big on losing and I don’t like losing.”