The Johnson Sisters
By Wayne Wood
The Lady Buc Basketball Program had success during its early beginning under Berry High School Coach Terry Stephens. Coach Stephens had a 5-year record of 77-26 from 1979-1984 as he was setting the foundation of the program.
During January of his last season of 1984, he was called to the office to meet a man who was moving from Chattanooga, Tennessee with two athletic daughters and they were looking for a school attend and play sports. Coach Stephens was cordial and receptive but knew he was getting out of coaching and into the private business world. He thus knew that he wouldn’t coach these girls as he would later ask Coach Bob Finley to take over the program.
That man from Chattanooga was Randall Johnson. He was glad in getting a good job promotion in moving to Birmingham but also dismayed that his two girls (Jennifer & Jan) were distraught in moving and with good reason. As a high school sophomore, Jennifer had been the starting catcher on a state championship softball team in Tennessee while Jan had been voted the best all-around athlete (boys or girls) at her junior high school. Both girls were great athletes whether it was basketball, volleyball, softball or whatever.
Mr. Johnson knew nothing about girls athletics in the Birmingham area. In fact, girls sports were slowly becoming accepted in Alabama at the time. Girls softball had not yet been accepted as a sanctioned sports in the state of Alabama.
He visited several over-the-mountain schools and at the time was very distraught over the choices. Then his real estate agent suggested that he visit Berry High School in Hoover. After visiting with Terry Stephens, principals Jo Ann Pritchett, Gary McBay and other staff members, he asked if he could speak to the athletic director and was directed to the gym.
Mr. Johnson said, “I saw this guy sweeping the floor and asked if he could tell me where the athletic director was. The guy said, ‘I reckon that would be me.’ That guy was Bob Finley. I shook his hand and told him my name. Then I told him about our move and asked if my girls would be given a fair chance to compete for a spot on the athletic teams. Coach Finley loved to tell his version of the story later.
He said he was in the gym and saw this great big guy (me) coming toward him and stick out his hand and shook his almost breaking it. Coach Finley later said, ‘I couldn’t wait to tell him yes. I wasn’t about to tell him no. Best move I ever made.’ He said my girls would have that chance.”
When the school year ended in Tennessee, the family moved to Hoover. The girls played summer league softball under Doc Hodges. Jennifer’s fast pitching abilities and Jan’s play at 3rd base were something ahead of its time for the level of play in Alabama. The team went on to win the Dixie Youth World Series.
As the 1984-1985 school year began, the girls found out that Coach Finley was also the head football coach while they performed on the volleyball team. In accepting the role as girls basketball coach, Finley found himself being a head coach for two sports at the same time for the first time in his career.
It was also the first time since he had coached basketball since he was the head boys coach from 1964-1968 before he accepted the head football position & head athletic position in 1968. Though he had two daughters of his own, it was also the first time he had coached girls in any sport.
In Finley’s first season as the the girls coach, the Lady Bucs finished with a fine 19-3 record. The next season of 1985-1986 saw the girls become a state powerhouse team. Besides the Johnson girls, the squad was blessed with other great athletes as 7 girls signed athletic scholarships in a variety of sports. Jennifer was voted the best player in the county area and the team made it to the Final Four state championship bracket held in Athens, Alabama at the time.
Their first opponent was Opelika. The Lady Bucs built a 20-point lead early with Jennifer posting up and scoring almost at will & Jan was also a force inside. Then Finley pulled the 5 starters out and put in the 2nd unit trying to be gracious.
Opelika pecked away at the lead and were gaining great momentum. By the time the Buc starters were put back in and trying to recover. the Lady Bulldogs had gained a 2-point lead with a few seconds left, Jan tied it up with a basket to send the game into overtime.
However, the Lady Bucs had trouble relighting their fire and eventually lost the game. Finley later admitted that it was the worst coaching mistake of his life. The Bucs finished 27-2 on the season yet missing out on a great opportunity to win a girls basketball state title for the first time in school history hurt deeply.
Spring rolled around but Berry High didn’t have a softball team at the time which was very unfortunate for the two talented girls. Later they would establish one in 1987 (Jan’s senior year). Coach Finley served as the softball team sponsor and having Doc Hodges serve as head coach. Eventually, Finley was very instrumental in using his respected influence with the state athletic association in pushing to have fast-pitch softball sanctioned for girls in Alabama.
It was a very pivotal time for softball. Finley’s success in both football and girls basketball also helped gain a great margin of respect for girls sports altogether in more ways than people realize today.
Jennifer signed a full volleyball scholarship with UAB but during her sophomore season injured her rotator cuff. She later decided to transfer to nearby Samford University where she was given a softball scholarship, completed her eligibility and graduated with academic honors.
Meanwhile, during Jan’s senior year at Berry in 1986, she was given a full basketball scholarship to UAB during the early signing period in November. She was averaging 26 points and 10 rebounds a game and would eventually be named the Player of the Year in Alabama by Gatorade, Coca-Cola, The Birmingham News and USA Today.
However, during the season, she was engaging in some off-sport activity in the gym one day (running from a boy-goofing around having “fun”) when BOOM! She slipped on a wet floor and fell breaking her right arm-her shooting arm. Obviously, Coach Finley was very upset at this turn of events as he was counting on Jan helping them get back to the Final Four to win it this time.
Jan gallantly played the season out with a cast on her shooting arm making her shoot left-handed. It limited her ability to score and in turn the Bucs ability to win at times. They finished the season 17-11 and lost to Vestavia in the playoffs having having defeated them soundly (with a healthy Jan) earlier in the season.
Vestavia went to win their first state title being coached by Fran Braasch (who had coached Jan earlier in the summer with a group of girls on the Junior Olympic Team). Jan later became a stater at UAB by her sophomore year but tore her ACL and was redshirted the next year. However, she came back and finished out career for the Lady Blazers.
One of the many fond memories the Johnson girls have of Coach Finley were the nicknames he called them. Jennifer was “5-2 Johnson” while Jan “5-4 Johnson” because their basketball jersey numbers were 52 and 54 respectively. He would always say, “Come here 5-2 and 5-4 Johnsons” The Johnson family loved & respected him as one of the greatest men in their lives.
The Johnson girls had abilities as leaders in high school in more than just sports. In fact, they were selected to be in the “Hoover Belles” which is a long-time prestigious service organization in the city of Hoover.
Being academically inclined, they both chose the education profession after college graduation. Both girls went their separate ways professionally for awhile but kept their close family ties in the Birmingham area.
Jennifer was a teacher and softball coach at Pelham High & Vestavia High for awhile before becoming an administrator at both Vestavia and Hewitt-Trussville. She and her husband, Tim Hogan, have two daughters-Kaitlin and Jenna.
Jan taught and coached basketball at Birmingham’s Huffman High School before going to Shelby County’s Thompson High School and later at Calera High as a teacher/coach before coming home to Hoover High in 2008 to teach & coach volleyball & basketball. She was an assistant coach when the Lady Bucs basketball team won state titles in 2010 & 2012. She and her husband, Barry Holcomd, have one son-Taylor.
A year later, Jennifer rejoined her sister to accept a role as teacher & assistant softball coach at Hoover High before becoming the 9th grade unit principal and is still an assistant principal.
After more than 25 years, Jennifer & Jan became Buccaneers together again and happy to be back in Hoover in our school system passing on their knowledge, skills & passion to student/athletes. They are truly Legendary Lady Bucs!