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Johnson hopes to lead Packers to postseason success

West Fargo golfer Riley Johnson hopes to help the Packers win their second state championship in three years before he joins the University of Minnesota next year. David Samson

Chuck Gad has seen plenty of talented golfers in his 38 years as West Fargo’s head coach, but he had to admit golfers like senior Riley Johnson do not come around very often.

“He is really a special kid, and I have been blessed with a lot of them,” Gad said. “He is our leader, and the kids have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Sometimes the best player isn’t the most popular, but Riley is. The kids look up to him, and he helps them all the time.”

Johnson, the son of Randy and Marilee, first picked up a golf club when he was 5 years old and has since developed a deep-seated love for the game. He tried other sports growing up, but knew the golf course was where he wanted to be.

“My whole family is really into golf,” Johnson said. “When I was younger, we would go out and play every Sunday. From there, I just really started to love it. I wasn’t tough enough for football, and baseball affected my golf swing.”

He insists there is no other game like golf and enjoys the discipline and determination one can learn from the sport.

The second of three Johnson boys, he cemented himself in Packer history his sophomore year when he won the individual state championship and contributed to the team’s state championship.

“It was a special moment because both of my brothers were on the team, and when we won state as a team, I got to celebrate with them,” Johnson said. “My whole family was there, and it was a great moment.”

His junior season, he admits, was not as satisfying, as he finished eighth in the state tournament. According to Gad, he got caught up in the mental aspect of the game.

“He started getting his head involved, which he had never done before,” Gad said. “When you rattle your brain in golf, things get tough.”

This season, he is feeling better about his abilities, and his coach said he would be shocked if he was not in contention for his second state title.

“I don’t care if anyone beats him this year, he is the best player in North Dakota,” Gad said. “There is no doubt in my mind.”

After his senior season comes to an end, Johnson will join the University of Minnesota this fall and play for its golf team. A longtime Gophers fan, he credits his work regimen —which saw him on the course every day in the summer and at the Sports Bubble several days during the winter — for the opportunity to play at the next level.

“When I was a freshman, I wouldn’t have guessed I would play Division I golf, but I started to practice more and actually get into it,” Johnson said. “In my sophomore year, I took it upon myself to practice more and work with a swing coach. That year proved that I really wanted to play.”

Though the nerves have started to set in, Johnson is more excited for the next chapter in his golf career than anything. His coach believes that while his dedication is what earned him a spot on the Gophers’ roster, his personality is what he will be remembered for.

“If you don’t like Riley, you don’t like anybody,” Gad said. “I think, when he gets there, he won’t be afraid. He will take off, and even the older kids will realize he has it going for him. Whatever he does, he will be good at it. It has been a joy to be around him. I will be in mourning when he graduates.”

The golf team is set for a conference meet at King’s Walk Country in Grand Forks on Thursday. Tee-off is at 9 a.m.