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Central quarterback Johnny Davis throws a pass during a regular-season game against Aquinas. In his first year as a starter, Davis threw for 2,072 yards and 18 TDs with nine interceptions.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune

Johnny Davis has spent the last 12 weeks — more if you count the summer — maturing as an athlete and as a leader.

He made his first real impact at Central High School as a freshman basketball player last season. Johnny and his twin brother Jordan were key pieces of the puzzle as the Red Raiders won a WIAA Division 2 state championship.

The experience — even with more established players like Kobe King and Bailey Kale around — set Johnny up for his next challenge as starting quarterback of the football team.

Central football coach Tony Servais also is an assistant coach for the basketball team and watched Johnny’s development closely in preparation for what awaited.

“When you play quarterback, you have to go out there and command the huddle,” said Servais, whose eighth-seeded team takes a 5-4 record to top-seeded Menomonie (9-0) in the first round of the Division 2 playoffs tonight. “That isn’t always easy for a sophomore to do. I don’t think he was that comfortable with it the first couple of games, but he got there pretty fast.

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Central’s Johnny Davis stiff arms Logan’s Jeremiah Nagel during the Ark of Victory game this season. Central rallied for 24-18 victory at Swanson Field.

“We felt like he’d be ready for this, and he’s showed us that he is.”

In the first real chance to show his football talents, Johnny Davis has completed 49.3 percent of his passes for 2,072 yards, 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has also rushed for two touchdowns.

There have been tough nights. He was intercepted twice by West Salem in a 26-17 loss, passed for only 26 yards and was injured in a 41-0 loss to Onalaska and was picked off three times by Tomah in the last game he played.

But he also passed for more than 400 yards twice and got the Red Raiders to the end zone in the fourth quarter to beat the Timberwolves 34-32 last week and assure Central of its first playoff appearance in four years.

“He gets better every single practice,” said Central senior Greg Kohler, who has 49 catches for 704 yards and has scored 11 touchdowns. “It’s with his reads, his keys.

“He’s always been good because he’s an athlete, but his execution and knowing what to do in certain situations keeps getting better.”

The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has grown quickly while playing an influential position.

“All I try to do is not make the same mistakes I’ve already made,” Johnny said. “I think I’ve gotten smarter with the throws I’ve made — and not made — and understanding when to just take a sack and not try to do too much.”

The successes have also come without the help of Jordan, his lifelong teammate in both football and basketball. Jordan injured his ankle on the second drive of Central’s season-opening 45-7 win over Eau Claire North and hasn’t returned to the field.

Servais said that impacted Johnny, and part of coaching him turned into helping him through that twist in the plan.

“It’s really tough,” Johnny said. “This is the first time he’s ever been injured like this, and I know he wants to be out here with us. It’s hard for him, and it’s hard for me.

“All of that practice we did (in the offseason) together was blown up three minutes into the first game of our season.”

To keep the passing game dangerous, Central has had to try and run the ball more. In doing so, Servais has looked to many players — A.C. Riley, Steven Cross, Peter Flemming, Kohler — to get that job take care of.

Johnny’s command of that situation has impressed his coach.

“He’s the guy who has helped them know where they need to be and help them through what we’re doing and truly made this his offense,” Servais said. “I couldn’t say this was his offense when the season started.”

The way he has adapted to the absence of his brother might be opening new doors for Johnny, who has received a scholarship offer to play basketball at UW-Green Bay. He said football is now an option for his future.

“His first love is basketball, I know,” Servais said. “But he could play college football. His arm, his athletic ability, his size will get college football programs looking at him.”

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