MISSOULA – Three years ago, McKenzie Johnston stood midcourt at the Butte Civic Center, the Class AA girls state championship trophy hoisted over her head. Johnston had just finished pouring in 18 points, dishing out seven assists and nabbing four steals against Bozeman High, helping her Helena Capital Lady Bruins secure the program’s first-ever Class AA state title.

These days, Johnston stands midcourt at Missoula’s storied Dahlberg Arena, home to one of the most successful women’s basketball programs in the country. Johnston, the 2015 Class AA most valuable player, was supposed to be groomed into a pivotal role with the Montana Lady Grizzlies. Instead, injuries forced the then-redshirt freshman into a much bigger role.

After seniors Kayleigh Valley and Alycia (Simms) Harris were lost with season-ending injuries, coach Shannon Schweyen turned to Johnston, who didn’t disappoint. The high-IQ point guard ranked second on the team with 8.3 points per game and led the Lady Griz with five rebounds per contest, while averaging more than 31 minutes on the court.

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“McKenzie had just a phenomenal year for a freshman point guard, it’s not an easy position to play,” said Schweyen. “I equate her to an amazing quarterback who sees the routes they should be taking, even when they’re not quite there yet running them, and she wants to throw it. She’s a great leader, she has amazing floor vision out there and she’s really good at scoring the ball around the basket.

“She’s an incredible rebounder, which is something you don’t really expect out of your point guard. Midway through (last) season, I finally said, ‘I have to let you go to the boards every time.’ Typically, our point guard gets back, but I finally said, ‘You’re our leading offensive rebounder so go for it. We’ll put our two-guard back.’ Kenzie had a great year and it’s exciting to see the kind of seasons she has coming up. … She’s a great competitor, multi-sport athlete that is just fun to have on the team and a really good leader.”

After blowing away expectations last winter, Johnston has now become the focal point of the Lady Griz as a sophomore this season. She currently leads the team in multiple categories, and is in the top 20 in the Big Sky Conference in many more. Her 11.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game have helped vault the Lady Griz near the top of the league standings.

Johnston’s high school coach at Helena Capital, Bill Pilgeram, has watched from afar as the former 11-time letter-winning, three-sport standout, has become such an essential piece to the Lady Griz puzzle.

“No, not a bit. Not a bit,” Pilgeram said, when asked if her performance has been a surprise. “I think any level you put her out there, she’s going to do those point guard things — make other people better and she’s going to make any team she plays on better.”

McKenzie Johnston holds the Class AA girls basketball championship trophy after the Lady Bruins defeated Bozeman in March of 2015. (MTN Sports photo)

“She was just the ultimate point guard,” he continued, recalling her Capital High days. “She could do everything well, she did the little things well, but every time she plays, everyone else gets better because she makes her teammates better. She’s such a great basketball IQ girl. We’re all very proud every time we watch her. We’re thankful we got to have her and we have a lot of pride watching her do her thing over there in Missoula.”

Schweyen also beamed with pride when discussing her coaching mentality with Johnston. Over the past two seasons, the player and coach have a common knowledge of the game, watching plays as they unfold on the court. Schweyen admits there are times during games she sees Johnston not through the eyes of a coach, but as a fan of her spectacular play.

“She has great knowledge of the game and picks things up really well. We had a lot of young kids last year, a lot of kids who were new to the program. Obviously, McKenzie redshirted so she had that season to get to know things, but you’re right, she was one that you had to tell her once and she knew it,” Schweyen said. “She would come out of games and have very intelligent things to say, like ‘I think I can get the give-and-go, they’re tight on me,’ or ‘I have size on this girl, can I take her down and post her?’ She saw things as they were happening during the game, which there are a lot of kids where that just doesn’t happen. … I think she would make a great coach. She’s good with kids and good with people and gives a lot back.”

Three years have passed since Johnston hoisted a championship trophy above her head. She and Schweyen are each hoping to end that spell by season’s end.

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