Five years ago, St. Anne’s-Belfield coach Phil Stinnie knew of Mo Johnson, but he didn’t know Mo Johnson.
“I saw her when she was nine or 10 playing in the back gym of Albemarle High school and it was something about her then, she was confident and ready to play,” Stinnie said. “Then (a few years later) I got a call from her dad who I grew up with and he says ‘she’s yours.’ It has been such a journey and I’m just happy to be part of her story.”
What’s blossomed since then is one of the most fruitful coach-player relationships in recent memory as the Saints have advanced to the state championship three times in five years while Johnson has earned a wealth of individual honors including the Gatorade state player of the year award and prep basketball’s ultimate individual honor, a McDonald’s All-American selection. And Stinnie won his 400th career game as a head coach Friday, likely a little ahead of schedule if Johnson doesn’t join the Saints’ ranks.
“I can’t even put it into words, he’s truly a special person and I’m so glad I got to play for him for five years,” Johnson said.
Saturday didn’t end the way Stinnie and Johnson wanted it to, with a VISAA D1 state championship, but the Saints left every ounce of what they had on the floor in the 67-56 loss to Paul VI, who won its 16th straight state championship.
“I really, really thought that this year was our chance and we came up short but that’s okay,” Johnson said. “We worked really hard to get here and I’m really proud of my team and really proud of myself, I’m proud to be here.”
With a couple of minutes left in the game, Stinnie yelled from the sidelines “lock them up, right now!” and the Saints somehow found another level of intensity while down 10 and created a frantic sequence for the Panthers who briefly panicked. The message was clear. STAB wasn’t just not going down without a fight, the Saints were going to go out playing even more intensely than they had all season.
“That’s who we are – we are undersized against most people we play with and how we’ve been successful at least through Mo’s career is being gritty on the defensive end,” Stinnie said. “We make people work for everything they got.”
Johnson scored 32 points in the loss, following up a 43-point explosion in the state semifinals on Friday and matching her 32 points in the state quarterfinals. Averaging nearly 36 points per game is one of the finest performances in state tournament history. Paul VI clamped down on the Saints’ other scorers, Zoe Burruss, Maddie Rice and Sabrina Lewis finished with six points each despite a Herculean effort on defense by the entire STAB roster.
Paul VI got 22 points from 6-foot-2 Laura Williams, a highly regarded recruit in the Class of 2024, with a big chunk coming from the line where she went 10-for-10. Brooke Batchelor had 18 points, knocking down four 3-pointers. Sadie Shores had 11 points and Louis Volker had 10 for the Panthers.
“Paul VI is Paul VI and Scott Allen is a good friend of mine and he runs a well-oiled machine,” Stinnie said. “He keeps everyone calm.”
The careers of Lewis, Rice and Johnson come to a close. But they’ve all three left the Saints in a better place, working together as a team and as a class to elevate the expectations of the program and get a step closer to that Division I state title goal.