Roundball refugees: Ex-Chelsea hoop standouts find home, success at Thetford Academy

  • Thetford basketball players Kiana Johnson and Jake Colby at Thetford Academy on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. Both have reached their 1,000-point career mark after transferring to Thetford Academy from Chelsea High School, which closed due to consolidation. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford’s Kiana Johnson drives for the hoop through the Randolph defense of Kasie Mills, left, and Morgan Fordham in the first quarter of their game in Thetford, Vt., on Feb. 7, 2019. The senior reached the 1,000-point career mark this season, her first year at the school. Johnson transferred to Thetford Academy after Chelsea High School closed due to consolidation. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford’s Jake Colby passes the ball off to a teammate during their game against Woodstock in Thetford, Vt., on Jan. 7, 2019. The senior reached the 1,000-point career mark this season, his first year at the school. Colby transferred to Thetford Academy after Chelsea High School closed due to consolidation. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chelsea hosted Whitcomb on Jan. 7, 2017, in a nail-biter of a game in Chelsea, Vt. Behind for most of the game, the Red Devils made a comeback in the fourth quarter, staying within a basket of the visiting Hornets. A foul at the three-point arc brought sophomore Jake Colby to the line. Colby sunk three consecutive free-throws to tie the game. Chelsea pulled ahead in overtime, tallying their first win of the season. (The Herald of Randolph - Tim Calabro)

  • Chelsea junior Kiana Johnson pump-fakes in the paint during the Red Devils' final home game on Feb. 22, 2018. Johnson scored 15 points in the 25-27 victory over Whitchester. (The Herald of Randolph - Dylan Kelley)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/9/2019 10:03:27 PM

THETFORD — It seems fitting that two gymnasiums, two high schools, two communities some 20 miles apart will remember the names Kiana Johnson and Jake Colby together forever. Half Panther and half Red Devil, the career 1,000-point scorers represent two different places at once.

Johnson and Colby are two former Chelsea Public School students, refugees of Act 46 — the Vermont state law that required small school districts to either merge with others voluntarily or eventually be mandated to do so — who just so happen to be talented athletes, too. Ask them about it and they’ll tell you about years of frustration, a year of lasts, a few months of confusion and a stressful search to find a new high school home.

They each eventually landed at Thetford Academy and seem comfortable five months into their first and only year with the school, turning a new-kid-on-the-block situation into a positive experience before college. Johnson helped TA win a VPA Division III girls soccer championship in the fall; Colby returned from a broken right index finger late in the soccer season. Both Johnson and Colby also have become key parts of the TA girls and boys basketball teams, each of which entered the weekend near the top of the D-III standings with two weeks remaining before playoffs.

They also each entered the basketball season within reach of the 1,000-point milestone. Colby reached the mark on Dec. 27; Johnson hit the plateau on Jan. 31. Their names are in the process of being added to the 1,000-point banners at Thetford and Chelsea, another reminder that their varsity basketball careers — through no fault of their own — span multiple stops.

Talk about making the best of a situation out of their control.

“I think that Jake and I have kind of accepted that Chelsea, the high school, is over,” said Johnson on Thursday before a game against Randolph at Thetford’s Vaughan Gymnasium. “It’s sad, but I think we’ve taken the step. We’re Panthers now. We’re Thetford members. We’ll always remember Chelsea. Whatever we do now, it’s in remembering Chelsea, but it’s for Thetford.”

Added Colby on Thursday: “I’m trying to represent (Chelsea) still. A lot of the Chelsea fans still follow us; it’s kind of cool to see that. … I didn’t really know what to expect, coming to a new school. But I was hoping I could keep Chelsea with me.”

In hindsight, Johnson and Colby view the negative of Chelsea’s closing as a productive part of young adulthood. That didn’t make the change any less difficult.

Johnson remembers the rumors starting during her sophomore year at Chelsea in 2016. Slowly, she said, those rumors turned into a vote to close to school for good.

“I remember going to school the next day and nobody talked,” Johnson said. “It was silent.”

Colby said he just remembers the feeling of helpless frustration.

“It’s K-12. You see all the high schoolers growing up and think, ‘Wow, I want to be exactly like them,’ ” Colby said. “I always imagined myself playing for Chelsea. It was tough to deal with.”

Parrish Eiskamp, the former Chelsea athletic director who now works at Blue Mountain Union High School in Wells River, said that feeling was widespread.

“To say it wasn’t a challenge would be an understatement,” Eiskamp said on Friday. “There was a lot of frustration around the closure of the high school, like the community wasn’t supporting them. … I think it was hard for the kids to navigate.”

Chelsea held its final home regular-season basketball game against Whitcomb-Rochester last year on Feb. 22. After the season was over, Colby and Johnson got to work searching for a new school.

“I remember I had to pick schools out of this catalogue, schedule visits,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really getting kicked out of my high school. My childhood, basically.’ ”

Colby said he remembers putting the decision off, not wanting to think about where he would spend only one year of high school before going off to college.

“I didn’t want to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to go to the same school I had been,” Colby said. “I was like, ‘This is pointless. Why am I doing this, I’m only going somewhere for one year?’ ”

Added Karen Colby, Jake’s mother, who now works as an assistant girls junior varsity basketball coach with the Panthers: “We should have been picking a college. Instead, we were picking a high school.”

Added to decision was their athletic abilities, a valuable asset for neighboring schools looking for a boost. Johnson said she was approached by some coaches and admitted athletics played a big part in her decision. Colby said he received a few text messages from kids on other teams trying to convince him to join up, but said he tried to keep athletics out of the equation.

“I never got any phone calls, but I got a couple of text messages,” Colby said. “Some were players; some were coaches. I really didn’t even try to look at that or communicate it. I was trying not to worry about it. … It was a little surprising. I tried to not let any outside influence be a factor in my decision.”

Eric Ward, the Thetford girls basketball head coach, went to a few of Johnson’s games at Chelsea and said he offered to help make the decision easier, though Ward did admit it was a fine line between actively trying to sell his school to a student-athlete and offering to help guide them through the decision-making process.

“Especially for the seniors at Chelsea, I wanted them to come here because they wanted to be here, not because you were promised something,” Ward said. “When they shadowed here, they felt really good about the school. … They’re student-athletes. The students come first.”

Helping them through that decision felt at times, he said, like a competition for athletic talent.

“The athletes were probably pushed a little bit more,” Ward said.

“I know there were other coaches out there who were really pressuring them to come there. They were disappointed (Colby and Johnson) didn’t come there.”

Eiskamp admitted guiding students to make the right decision based on academics and not solely athletic ability was difficult to navigate.

“It was a challenge,” Eiskamp said. “There were a lot of informal conversations among students who played at other schools, a lot of coaches tiptoeing around that area.

“It’s an impossible situation to put a high school student through, someone begging them to come to our school and win a championship. … I think the kids felt the pressure of that.”

Both Colby and Johnson considered Williamstown; eventually they chose Thetford. For Johnson, a chance to have Ward as a coach played a big part in her decision. Colby’s younger sister, Emma, also a former Chelsea student, first chose Thetford; Colby followed suit a few weeks later.

“(Ward) was really supportive,” Johnson said. “He reached out to a lot of the Chelsea athletes and said, ‘We want you to be here, but if you don’t, that’s perfectly fine.’ It was nice of him to just be there instead of being like, ‘You need to come here. We want you. These schools aren’t nearly as good.’ … I think, purely, he felt bad for us.”

The pair joined Thetford’s summer athletic activities to help get them acquainted to new teammates. Johnson played summer basketball and joined the girls soccer team during preseason in August. Colby broke his finger over the summer and showed up to boys soccer practice with his arm in a sling.

The feeling of being new or out of place didn’t last long, both said. Being athletes made the transition easier.

Johnson scored a goal for Thetford in the D-III girls soccer championship game against Vergennes in November, helping the Panthers win their second consecutive title in their third straight trip to the final. Colby, a goalkeeper, played in the final five games for the Thetford boys, who lost in the opening round of the D-III tournament.

Nearly two months later, Colby was at center court at Thetford’s Vaughan Gymnasium accepting the game ball for scoring his 1,000th career point in basketball. The gym was lined with red T-shirts; Eiskamp, the former Chelsea AD, was on hand to participate in the celebration.

“When it happened, I had to fight back tears. I don’t know why. I never expected this to happen,” Colby said. “It was an awkward situation, honestly, coming to a new school.”

Colby went into the weekend leading the Thetford boys (10-3 overall and winners of eight of their last nine games) with 12.2 point per game. Johnson paces the Panthers (14-1 overall and on a 14-game win streak) with 12.9 points per game.

She admitted the increased competition — up to D-III from Chelsea’s D-IV — has helped her focus, even if the mentality change of being the go-to athlete on a small team to a small part of a bigger team was a difficult transition, at first.

“I was like, ‘I can’t strive like this somewhere else,’ ” Johnson said. “I was down on myself, like, ‘This is going to be so different at a D-III school. How am I going to do? How am I going to perform? How are my academics going to be? How am I going to compare?’ I was freaking out a little bit. Like, ‘I’m not going to be as good as I was.’

“I got here and everyone was like, ‘You can literally do whatever you want. We want you here. Just go out and play as you’ve always played.’ I’ve become a better person, student, athlete overall. (Thetford) has completely changed my life.”

Both Colby and Johnson admitted a part of Chelsea will always be part of them. It’s their home, where they grew up and, perhaps most importantly, where they learned to play and developed into the athletes they are today. In some ways, the communities have merged to support the Panthers, with Johnson and Colby carrying on some of the last of Red Devil greatness.

Their names on two 1,000-point banners is just the consolation prize.

“Now that I’m not at home, five minutes from my house, I feel like I’m a little bit more independent,” Johnson said. “My parents may disagree, but I feel like I’m more independent. I’ve kind of branched out, changed in a better way, I’ve come out of my shell and tried new things.

“I feel like I can go out there and do whatever I want, be who I want to be. … Even though the school consolidation was a tough transition, I think it helped us for the better. It made us realize we need to take the opportunities that are held out for us.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.




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