CR was only place for Johnson

 CAMDEN — No Henlopen Conference volleyball team before or since has made it as far as that 2010 Caesar Rodney High squad.

The Riders were the first downstate school to reach the DIAA state semifinals.

They even got to play in the Carpenter Center before finishing fourth in the state.

Just a junior on that team, there was something about that run that inspired Nicole Johnson to want to coach.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” said Johnson, who’s maiden name is Shuba. “And I knew I wanted to come back and take over the program some day, I just didn’t realize it would be this soon.”

It was something of a dream come true for Johnson to be hired as Caesar Rodney’s new volleyball head coach. The 25-year-old science teacher at Fifer Middle School was named the Riders’ coach over the winter.

Johnson has spent the last six years coaching with CR’s junior varsity. Ironically, though, it was her one season working with the Premier club program that made her realize how much she wanted to coach the Riders.

“I thought it was just volleyball that I loved,” said Johnson. “But then I realized, after coaching for someone else, it’s not just volleyball — it’s specifically CR volleyball. There’s just something about the program and camaraderie with the girls. It’s great.”

The Riders have been perennial state tournament contenders, currently owning a streak of four-straight appearances. Last fall the Riders finished 12-5 after reaching the tourney’s second round.

Johnson said the players seem excited to have a coach that they already know. CR had only three seniors on last year’s squad.

“I’m hoping it will be a smooth transition,” she said. “They definitely know that they come first in my book. Every season they always come first.

“Their first question to me was ‘When does conditioning start?’ because I always ran conditioning,” Johnson added. “I can’t wait for the summer because that’s when it all starts.”

After graduating from CR, Johnson played for both Wilmington University and Delaware Tech. In 2017 she helped the Hawks finish second in the National Junior College Athletic Association Region 19 Tournament,

Johnson was a setter, which she thinks is a pretty natural position to transition into coaching from.

“Setters have to be leaders on the court,” said Johnson. “So it’s a smooth transition from being a leader on the court to being a coach. I knew I always wanted to be involved in volleyball but I was able to come out of my shell a little bit when I played.

“I just saw how far (former CR coach Tiffany) Ranger was able to get us with her coaching. I wanted to make sure other girls got to feel the feeling that I had when we got to make history and play in the Carpenter Center. I want to build a team that makes it further than that.”

That being said, going very far in the state tournament isn’t any easier for downstate teams than it was when Johnson was playing.

The Riders already have their non-conference schedule for next fall set up with matches against New Castle County schools Appoquinimink, Concord, Wilmington Charter, Newark Charter and Caravel.

Johnson doesn’t want her players to think there’s any limitations on what they can accomplish.

“Yes, they have talent but so do we,” she said about upstate programs. “I feel like if you get the girls to want it, and get them to work hard for that goal, they can do anything.”