KINDRED, N.D. — Terryn Johnson isn’t an underclassman anymore.

The 6-foot-2 Kindred junior forward is ready to step into her role as an elder statesman and a vocal leader on a girls basketball team that expects to make a run at a state championship. She has been one of the best players on one of the best teams in North Dakota Class B for three years now. Since making her varsity debut three years ago as an eighth grader, she’s been one of the youngest.

Now she and her junior classmates, which includes all-state guard Abby Duchscherer, are the top dogs on a squad that features no seniors.

“It’s weird,” Johnson said. “I’ve fit into a role as an underclassman for so long.”

“Before, she stepped back and allowed the upperclassmen to lead with their voices,” Kindred coach Sam Brandt said. "But she’s not going to be okay with not having a voice.”

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The coach says it’s been completely natural to see the junior class stepping into the leadership role vacated by five graduating seniors from last year’s team. Johnson has led with her standout play for years.

She averaged a double-double last season, putting up 16.2 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. As an eighth grader she was a major contributor on a team that lost on a buzzer beater to eventual state champion Grant County in the state quarterfinals. As a ninth grader she helped lead the Vikings to a state championship, scoring 14, 15, and 13 points in three state tournament games. As a sophomore, she experienced the pressure of spending a season with a target on her back as defending champion.

Through the first couple of weeks of practice leading up to the Vikings’ season opener on Tuesday against Wyndmere-Lidgerwood, the coach says she’s happy with what she’s seeing out of Johnson and her junior classmates.

“She’s a fourth-year player,” Brandt said. “She’s a veteran. You could have called her a veteran last year as a sophomore. Her voice and leadership and composure are going to be huge.”

Johnson and the Vikings are determined to climb back to the top of the mountain after an abrupt end to last season. They were upset by Central Cass in last season’s Region 1 championship game in a game nobody expected them to lose — least of all, themselves.

The Vikings rolled through the season with nary a struggle, winning every game but one by double digits. They had already beaten the Squirrels 77-59 in the regular season and entered the game with a 22-0 record. But playing the whole season as top dogs took its toll.

“Every team played you like it was their state championship game,” Johnson said.

“It felt heavy last year,” Brandt said. “It wasn’t anything specific. It just felt like everything was expected. Nobody walked into that region championship game thinking we wouldn’t be champions. I think the pressure had an effect and we played that game scared.”

Johnson is determined not to let it happen again. She spent her spring and summer working out and doing everything she could to improve. Any time she would get bored while she was cooped up at home during quarantine this spring, she would lift weights. She says she’s improved her max bench press by 40 pounds. During the summer, she worked with a trainer to try to improve her shooting from behind the 3-point line and to work on her moves in the lane.

“Coming off of last season made me the most motivated I’ve ever been,” Johnson said. “It was probably the best thing for me personally. Now in practice we come harder than we have ever worked before. Nothing's going to be given to us and we have to work for every game.”

Johnson and Duchscherer form one of the best one-two punches in the state. Duchscherer, who is committed to play softball at the University of Alabama, draws the attention of opposing defenses on the ball and opens things up for her teammates. Johnson dominates with inside-out scoring ability, strength on the boards and rim protection.

“(Duchscherer) opens up a lot of opportunities,” Johnson said. “Off the drive, people suck in and she is able to make a pass to me. And when we work in the post, we have that height advantage. If we need a basket I always know I can go to her for it. And she can come back to me if we need it. It’s nice to know we have that connection we can rely on.”

As great as they are as individual players, Brandt says the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

“I think they could just close their eyes half the time and find each others’ hands with the ball,” the coach said. “They just have a feel.”

The Vikings don’t want to be caught off guard again this year. They set themselves up with as much of a challenge as they could, scheduling what Brandt said was arguably the toughest in the state. During the regular season they’ll play defending Class B champions Langdon-Edmore-Munich, state semifinalists Central Cass and Grafton/St. Thomas, plus Linton-HMB and Carrington. Perhaps their biggest test will be against Fargo Davies, which made it to the Class A state semifinal last year.

“We want to be put in our place,” Brandt said. “We want a reality check before we get to that position where there’s no turning back. We’ve got long-term goals and short-term goals that we have to hit before we can say we are the best team in the state.”