Johnson not letting Bearcats settle for less despite loss of strong senior class

It’s been just over three months since Grafton’s boys basketball program wrapped up its most successful season in recent memory.

The senior-laden Bearcats won 18 games and were seeded fifth in the Class AAA state tournament, where GHS suffered a quarterfinal loss to Wheeling Central Catholic despite holding a 10-point lead in the third quarter.

It was a season to remember for coach Mike Johnson’s team, one that featured a fast-paced and balanced offensive attack. For as enjoyable as it was, the Bearcats regularly started four seniors that combined to average 56.6 of the team’s 73.1 points.

Gone are top scorer Ryan Maier (21.8 ppg), fellow guard Justin Spiker (16), versatile forward Kaden Delaney (12.8) and steady wing Tanner Moats, who averaged six points.

“We graduated a really good class of kids and probably 85 percent of our scoring, so you have to replace that,” Johnson said. “But there’s a good core nucleus there.”

Rising senior forward JT Veltri is the top returning scorer and the post presence was a key contributor last season with a 6.6 scoring average. Then-sophomore guards Jacob Maier and Isaac Lough were also important pieces and the duo combined to average 4.9 points in reserve roles.

“The biggest thing for us is to gain some experience,” Johnson said. “We can put in some stuff and set a bit of a foundation. We don’t think the cupboard is bare. We have some good young talent, but the key is it’s just young talent. Maybe it’s going to be a bit of a rollercoaster at times, but those are things that we’ll work through and that’s what this period is for.”

The 6-foot-3 Veltri has been an integral part of the Bearcats each of the last two seasons, though he is taking on an expanded role that means often going from another option to the top option.

“We told him after the season was over that the biggest thing for him was having to develop more of an outside touch,” Johnson said. “He’s spent some time working on that. He’s shot the ball much better.. He’ll be the focal point when we go into play, but that’s just the nature of it when you’ve been a two or three-year starter. You’re going to draw a lot of attention.”

During the three-week offseason workout period, Veltri has not only attempted to showcase a more developed skill set, but also provide leadership to a group that had most of its top voices move on.

It’s something Johnson has seen from Veltri since shortly after the Bearcats suffered the season-ending setback to the Maroon Knights.

“JT kind of took that initiative right after we were done in Charleston. We got back and started organizing some guys to get into the gym and weight room and he kind of took that upon himself early on, which is exactly what you want as a coach,” Johnson said. “If you can get a group that’s player driven and senior led like that, it pays dividends. He’s kind of embraced that role and done a really good job with it.”

While there’s no debating the talent and impact of Grafton’s 2022 graduating class and what that group meant to the program’s success over the last several seasons, Johnson believes his squad has a chance to develop into another state tournament qualifying group.

The Bearcats qualified for the Class AA state tournament in 2019, though as the No. 8 seed with a team that finished 11-16. In 2021, they missed out on the state tournament by one game when they fell to Robert C. Byrd in a region co-final, though Grafton’s improvement was displayed in its 12-6 record.

While Johnson is well aware many will expect his team to take a step back come winter, the Bearcats’ head coach is using the summer to make sure his roster is aware of what’s expected.

“The goal for us every year is not to win the Big 10. Our goal is for our season to end in Charleston,” Johnson said. “That goal doesn’t change. We have a sign on our door that says, ‘The standard is the standard.’ We kind of stole it from the Steelers. No matter who comes through the door, the expectation doesn’t change.

“We’ve really pushed that the last couple years and these kids have embraced that. That’s why our program has been successful.”

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