ORONO — Kirsten Johnson grew up on the beaches of Southern California dreaming of being a college student on the East Coast.
She also grew up to be 6-foot-2 and an accomplished basketball player.
Her father, Sten, played back in the day, at Kenyon College in his native Ohio. One of his teammates there was Richard Barron, who wound up coaching the women’s team at the University of Maine.
And so it was that Kirsten Johnson is leaving the sunny shores of San Diego this fall to jet some 2,700 miles from home, where she will be a Black Bear freshman playing for a man she’s known since childhood.
“I’ve always been intrigued by going to college out East,” Johnson said. “I took an East Coast trip last summer with my dad to go to a couple of schools and when we got contacted by Coach Barron, I took the official visit with an open mind. And I just fell in love with the campus and the academics and the team.”
Barron and Johnson both say her arrival in Maine was neither coincidental nor predestined. Yes, Barron has remained close to her father since their playing days, usually staying with the Johnsons whenever he was recruiting in San Diego.
But she still needed to impress upon him that she was good enough to play basketball at the Division I level.
That happened, she said, during an AAU event in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I think he just came to one of my games because he knew me. The game he saw was my best of that tournament,” Johnson said.
She visited Orono in September, and committed to the Black Bears two days later, before averaging 16.5 points and 13.5 rebounds as a senior at Academy of Our Lady of Peace.
Johnson has been playing basketball since age 6. Sports, and height, are in her genes. Dad was a 6-4 post player at Kenyon. Mother Irma, 5-9, played volleyball at Eastern New Mexico. Older sister Kayla was a high jumper at California Lutheran. Younger sister Kelli also plays basketball. She is 5-10 and growing.
“She plays hard,” Barron said, comparing Johnson to her father. “Sten wasn’t that tall for college basketball, but he was very strong. He was tough around the basket.”
Johnson said the fact that her parents know Barron so well has made it easier to accept that she’s leaving home.
She is the tallest of five new players for the Black Bears, but playing time will be hard to come by. Maine finished 17-15 last season and this season has the deepest team in Barron’s four-year tenure as head coach, with nine returning players who have started at least one game.
Johnson, who spent three weeks on campus last month taking two classes and bonding with two other incoming freshmen, said she is prepared to contribute as a rebounder and defender, reckoning those unglamorous roles are the best way to get onto the court.
In high school, she showed 3-point range and was such an accomplished ball-handler that her coach had her help bring the ball up court against the press. Frequently double-teamed when she played down low, she became adept at going to the high post.
Those are attributes Barron covets in his centers. But he cautioned that it’s far too early to project a spot for Johnson.
“We want kids who are skilled, versatile and the offense can run through them. They have to pass well, see the floor well. We want them to be able to face the basket, spread out,” he said.
“The key for her to get on the court is to be one of the best five players on the team. Maybe she’s the best player on the team this year, maybe she doesn’t play a minute. Both are possible.”
While that plays out, Johnson is thrilled to be living in the quietude of Maine. She said it’s a far cry from the constant noise that comes when living in a San Diego beach neighborhood.
“You can actually hear yourself think,” said Johnson, who plans to study engineering and business. “I was joking with my family that everyone here in Maine takes things slow, I really like that. You can relax and really enjoy the beauty of this place.”