Ailene Voisin

Hornets shooting star working her way to the top

Sac State star Maranne Johnson shoots for the stars

Sacramento State junior Maranne Johnson ranks among the nation’s top Division I 3-point shooters. She walked on for her freshman season and earned a full scholarship, thriving in the Hornets’ fast-paced system.
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Sacramento State junior Maranne Johnson ranks among the nation’s top Division I 3-point shooters. She walked on for her freshman season and earned a full scholarship, thriving in the Hornets’ fast-paced system.

While her older brothers and male cousins participated in pickup games outside their home in Antioch, Sacramento State junior Maranne Johnson, beginning at age 4, stood on the sidelines and dribbled a basketball.

Left hand, right hand. Between the legs, around the back. When the boys took a break, she would heave the ball at the basket and, admittedly, become somewhat of an airball expert.

But the Hornets guard never stopped shooting, and as she grew taller, stronger and older, a strange thing happened within the extended Johnson family: Maranne was the last one standing. While the boys lost interest in sports and rushed off to find jobs, Marvin and Roxanne’s oldest daughter developed into one of the premier 3-point shooters in the country.

Partly for safety reasons – mainly to keep her out of the street during her late-night shooting sessions – Marvin installed a rim in the backyard. Surrounded by four or five yapping dogs, and with Motown hits blaring, Maranne used the animals as defenders. She stutter-stepped between them, dribbled between her legs, created separation with a clever escape dribble, and shot jumpers until one of two things happened: She dropped from exhaustion or her parents looked at the clock and summoned her into the house.

“We had one drill where we would count how many shots she could make during one song, say, by the Temptations,” Marvin said. “It got to the point where she made more shots than me.”

3.5 Maranne Johnson’s 3-point per-game average, fifth in the nation

The elder Johnson shouldn’t feel too badly. His daughter is hitting more 3-pointers than most women in Division I basketball. Earlier this month, the communications major led the nation with 3.85 3-pointers per game. She currently ranks fifth (3.5) and is the Hornets’ second-leading scorer with 15.7 points per game.

Sac State coach Bunky Harkleroad is sitting back and enjoying the show. Johnson has far exceeded expectations. She was a walk-on who took out loans to pay for her freshman season, he said with a slight nod as if he can’t believe it, either.

During a standout career at Deer Valley High School in Antioch, a handful of D-I recruiters and several more D-II representatives frequently called and sent letters. But as she approached her final semester, the interest mysteriously waned. Her father reached out to several of the recruiters, he said, but received no response.

“Sac State was the only school that actually explained to me what the problem was,” Maranne said. “I was missing a required class to get into (a four-year school), so I took care of that at a junior college during the summer. Coach (Harkleroad) brought me in for a tryout and told me I could walk on my freshman year and if I took care of business, I would earn a scholarship.”

Johnson not only earned a scholarship, she flourished in Harkleroad’s system. Though injuries to four of his six seniors disrupted the team’s continuity, the Hornets are 3-4 in the Big Sky Conference as they prepare to visit Portland State on Saturday and are becoming healthier by the week – a critical factor given the fast-paced style and reliance on 10 to 12 players.

“The System” is predicated on creating significantly more shots than the opposition, primarily by forcing turnovers and capitalizing in the open court. Sac State led all D-I programs in forced turnovers last season and currently ranks fifth in the nation.

Harkleroad explains his approach accordingly: While Sac State continues fundraising for the state-of-the-art events center that anchors most college campuses, the Hornets have to be unique to remain competitive in the Big Sky.

So they run. And they press. And they shoot 3-pointers like most teams shoot layups.

“When Maranne went for the tryout,” Marvin said, “and coach explained his style to me, I was ecstatic. I said to Maranne, ‘This is right up your alley.’ I go to all the games – I have missed one in three years because of traffic – and even when they lose, I have so much fun. You don’t want their games to end.”

As she participated in shooting drills during a recent practice, the lean, athletic 5-foot-7 Johnson displayed excellent mechanics on her deep jumpers and almost perfect rotation on the ball. Because of her improved playmaking and defense, Harkleroad suggests, his two-guard has evolved into a more complete player and one of the team’s leaders. “Her best basketball is still ahead of her,” said the coach. “She changed her body, got stronger over the summer.”

Her best basketball is still ahead of her.

Bunky Harkleroad, Sac State women’s basketball coach, on Maranne Johnson

Johnson does more than shoot hoops during the summer. While her father is a cement specialist who worked on the foundation for seats, doors and walls at Golden 1 Center, her mother runs a restoration company that cleans houses damaged by fire or flooding. Maranne puts in weeks of eight-hour days with her mom, earning money that helps pay the rent at her off-campus apartment.

As for her circuitous path to Sac State, she agrees with her father: This was meant to be. She describes the green, leafy campus as “lovely” and gets a kick out of frequent encounters with the squirrels. She also appreciates and relates to the diversity of the student body – she is African American, Navajo Indian, Mexican and Filipino.

“Our extended family is getting too big to have our get-togethers at the house,” Marvin said. “With grand-kids, nieces, nephews, we have to start looking for someplace to rent.”

With a laugh, Marvin mentions that, after all those years when Maranne was the only girl surrounded by male siblings and cousins, the women are making a comeback.

“But Maranne’s my baby girl,” he said, “and she’s the one who went to college. If she winds up playing pro ball overseas, I’ll find a way to get there and watch. This is just working out great for her, and we couldn’t be happier.”