Sanders Never Figured He'd Be in 3-A Title Game : Franklin's Two-Sport Star Thought He'd Get to Championship in Football


The man behind the mission. That's Johnnie Sanders, who blazed the trail for Franklin to win its first City Section 3-A Division boys' basketball championship.

With Sanders scoring a game-high 21 points, including two three-pointers, Franklin defeated Birmingham, 64-57, Friday night at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Just four months ago, Sanders led Franklin to the City 4-A football playoffs, where the Panthers suffered a 33-9 first-round loss to Carson.

Sanders hoped for better results this time.

"Winning the basketball championship would atone for the football loss," Sanders said. "But this would be special because I never thought we would make it this far in basketball. I thought we had a chance to go all the way in football."

The only one more surprised at Franklin's success this season is Coach Robin Cardona.

"This is as far as the team has ever gotten," said Cardona, who has coached at Franklin for seven years. "I thought the team we had last year had a better chance of winning it but this has proven to be the best team I've coached."

Franklin (22-5) has enjoyed great regular-season success (63-16) over the past three years, only to be disappointed in the postseason (3-2).

Sanders, who will likely be named Northern Conference most valuable player for the third consecutive season, has been the one constant, averaging 25 points and 11 rebounds his sophomore season and 26 points and 17 rebounds last season.

"We've been riding Johnnie for three years," Cardona said. But now he has guys that can play ball with him."

This year, Sanders numbers haven't changed much (27 points, 13 rebounds), but his supporting cast has improved.

"The team is a lot better than it has been and it makes my job a lot easier," said the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Sanders. Most importantly, we are playing like a team."

And it helps Sanders to see a familiar face during timeouts.

"My job as the point guard is pretty much the same as it was as quarterback," said Jeff Deno, who combined with Sanders to give Franklin the most effective passing tandem in the City. "I get everybody involved in the offense and make sure Johnnie gets the ball in good scoring positions."

Along with Deno, Marcus Herring, Kesh DeSargent, John Kim and Albert Torres have led the Franklin surge.

"This team believes it can win," Cardona said. "They understand the importance of this game and don't want it to slip away."

Franklin nearly self-destructed early in the season when disagreements between Sanders and his teammates erupted in the locker room after a loss.

"Johnnie matured a lot after that experience," Cardona said. "He used to yell at his teammates on the floor when he would make a mistake. Nearly everyone on the team told Johnnie that they were tired of taking the blame when he played poorly.

"After that, it was almost as if a lightbulb came on inside Johnnie's head, because he hasn't done it since."

Sanders agrees that Franklin's late-season success can be attributed to a change of attitude.

"I told the guys that we were all trying to work towards the same goal (a championship) and that fighting among ourselves was detrimental to the team," Sanders said. "After that meeting, we all stopped pointing fingers and have pulled together."

Sanders continues to keep people guessing about which sport, football or basketball, he will pursue in college.

"I like basketball the most, but I want to play football," Sanders said. "There are a lot of 6-3 basketball players that can do what I can do and more. But there aren't many 6-3 football players with my hands, and foot technique."

Oregon, USC, BYU, UNLV, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Colorado, Colorado State and Oregon State have all contacted Sanders to play football.

"I want to go to a school that will emphasize the passing game," Sanders said.

First Sanders must work on improving his grades. He has not passed the Scholastic Assessment Test and hopes to enter as a Proposition 48 student, meaning he will attend a school and work on academics, but will be ineligible to play his freshman season.

Last summer, Sanders played in the Slam-N-Jam basketball tournament on a team coached by former NBA star and UCLA great Marques Johnson.

Who happens to be Sanders' cousin.

"Johnnie is a good basketball player with incredible athletic ability, but there are things he needs to work on, like dribbling and outside shooting," Johnson said. "However, he is an exceptional football player with all the tools he needs to be a great receiver."

As a wideout last season, Sanders caught 46 passes for 959 yards and 17 touchdowns in being named to the All-City 4-A Team. The only thing more remarkable than Sanders' numbers is the fact that it was his first year playing football.

Sanders' nomination to play in both the McDonald's All-American game and the East-West Shrine Game is a tribute to his excellence in both sports.

Said Sanders: "It's an honor to be invited to play and hopefully I can play in both games."

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