CANTON — When he returned to a place that brought him much success during his first go-around, Bill Johnson felt like he had returned home.
Johnson was the head girls basketball coach at Tallmadge High School from 2010 to 2014. His tenure included the team’s first district title since 1999 during his final season.
This time, Johnson revisited the institution on North Munroe Road to tutor young men on the game he loves so dearly.
Johnson took over the Blue Devils’ boys basketball team, which didn’t look anything like the previous season’s squad that won 14 games and reached district play.
In other words, there was much work to be done and not much time to do it.
"I come in as a new coach and they have to learn a new system," Johnson said. "We have eight seniors who want to make a run. They had to learn everything in a three-week period. Summer was short and we didn’t have all of the guys."
Such facts were not a particularly good prognosis of the weeks ahead.
Plus, Johnson had to replace four starters, including the school’s third all-time leading scorer, Matthew Francesconi. Tallmadge also had just three returning varsity players the previous season.
Halfway into the 2018-19 season, the results were mixed to say the least.
Tallmadge was just 4-8 and had some puzzling losses that certainly gave its doubters a legitimate reason to gloat.
"It could have gone a lot of different ways," Johnson said.
Fortunately, it did go a "different way." And it ended up in a destination not seen in 11 years.
That would be the district title game.
"It’s a credit to our seniors, our leaders, our captains," Johnson said. "Just the guys as a whole, they wanted to do something great."
Achieving greatness will have to wait another day. Tallmadge’s drought of not reaching regional play extended to a 14th season Saturday.
That’s because the Blue Devils were humbled by a superior Akron Buchtel squad. The Griffins, who have hopes of reaching the Final Four, crushed Tallmadge 86-52 Saturday at the Canton Fieldhouse.
Nonetheless, it was quite a ride for the Blue Devils and particularly, their eight seniors.
Those seniors, particularly starting point guard Sam Seeker and starting guard Nick Hussing, along with guards Jake Gardella, Sean Ambrose, Steve Zesiger, Nate Zappola, Nick Joyner and Liam Tokash refused to let their season go down the tubes.
"We’ve talked all year about playing for each other," Johnson said. "They weren’t going to go down without a fight.
"We didn’t have enough in the tank to win it, but I’m super proud of the way they battled and tried to leave the floor on a positive note."
That "positive note" took place more than a week later than many people expected.
Tallmadge, the seventh seed, reached the Canton district final by topping second-seeded Louisville in sectional play and third-seeded Canal Fulton Northwest in a district semifinal contest.
"After the Revere game [a 72-61 loss last month], Sammy stepped up and said, ‘I don’t want this to be over,’" Johnson said. "‘I’m going to go play baseball for our team and I’m going to play baseball at the collegiate level, but I don’t want this to end.’
"That’s all of our guys. We have guys who play different sports. All of our guys felt like that."
Seeker’s seven classmates certainly felt that way.
Many people will say there is nothing like playing for high school sports teams. For the eight upperclassmen, the sense of urgency was at an all-time high.
"They created what our identity is going to be for the rest of the time I’m the head coach here," Johnson said. "We’re going to play together; we’re going to play as a team; we’re going to be a family.
"That’s my appreciation for them. They bought in. Not every team does that."
Someday, the players will appreciate their stunning turnaround after their rocky start.
Their warm thoughts of the winter will most likely be put on hold for now, though.
Yes, the Blue Devils were heavy underdogs Saturday. That doesn’t mean they will treat their humbling defeat with a simple shrug of the shoulders.
"They know they did something that was awesome," Johnson said. "But it still hurts. I think it’s a good lesson for our underclassmen. What do you have to do to get on top of that scoreboard?"
Johnson, who has brought the kind of enthusiasm that has become quite contagious in Tallmadge, wasn’t his usual cheerful self after the loss.
That will change in the coming days. His return to where it all began has been a rousing success.
And Johnson owes it all to a group of teenagers who believed in him the moment they met during their first day of practice.
"They made a heck of a run," Johnson said. "I’m super proud of them. I didn’t want it to end. This group will always hold a special place in my heart."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_RPC.