By Chris Whitfield
TUNNEL HILL — Northwest Whitfield softball players Karlie Henson and Emily Boyd began this season with every intention of being at the state tournament in Columbus this week to close their senior year on the diamond.
Mykeah Johnson, the other member of the team’s Class of 2013, started this season just happy to be alive.
The Lady Bruins, the top-ranked team in the GaPrepCountry.com Class 4A coaches poll — as they have been for most of the season — will begin their quest for an elusive state title by taking on Macon’s Rutland at 4:15 p.m. today. The final eight teams in each of the state’s six classifications are competing in the three-day tournament at the South Commons Softball Complex in Columbus to determine state champions.
Boyd, who has committed to play at Ole Miss, has been one of the state’s most dominant pitchers in her four years with the Lady Bruins, earning all-region and all-state recognition in addition to being selected as The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Player of the Year each of the past three seasons. Henson, a second baseman, has been a team player as a reliable cog in the middle of the defense and the middle of the batting order.
Along with Johnson, a third baseman, they have started for Northwest since they were freshmen, and this is their third trip to Columbus. The Lady Bruins took third at state in 2009 and finished fourth last season; the only time Northwest failed to advance to Columbus during the trio’s time in Tunnel Hill was after a second-round exit at the hands of Madison County during their sophomore year.
All along this season, the Lady Bruins have talked about focusing on the present, whether it was beating the next opponent or winning the Region 7-4A tournament — which they did for the third time in four years. However, there really has been only one goal for this team and this group of upperclassmen.
They want a state title.
“I don’t think any of us will be satisfied with this year unless we get a ring,” Henson said. “Our 10th-grade year, when we didn’t make it to Columbus, we were all devastated ... That has really been a big fuel for us this year, is wanting to prove that we are the best.”
Boyd echoed that sentiment.
“Of course we are going to take it game-by-game like we have all year long, but if winning state wasn’t the only goal for this team, then I don’t know what team it would be for,” Boyd said. “We need to play for ourselves and our school and our community. (A state title) should be our goal.”
But for all of the dreams of a state title, Johnson had to wonder if her dreams were over after a horrific automobile crash in May. Johnson, the team’s defensive linchpin at the hot corner, could easily be considered the team’s heart and soul.
She’s loud, she’s comedic and she makes few mistakes at perhaps the most crucial defensive position in fastpitch softball. In April, she committed to play at East Tennessee State University, and during the past four seasons her personality has been backed up by a game that is even louder. Like Boyd, Johnson earned Class 4A all-state first-team recognition a year ago, when she was Region 7-4A’s Co-Player of the Year with teammate Bayli Cruse.
But driving north on Interstate 75 late one night a month after making that commitment to ETSU, she almost lost it all.
“It happened on May 5,” Johnson said, losing a little of the bravado in her voice as the moment seemingly washed over her mind. “It was really bad. It is a miracle I am even alive, much less still playing softball.
“This is the first time I have really talked about it. My teammates know, but I really haven’t told anyone about that night.”
Heading back home to Whitfield County, Johnson had just passed Exit 293 when another car veered into her lane and pushed her off the road. Johnson’s car hit a guard rail on the side of the road, and its galvanized aluminum sliced through the vehicle, cutting her car in half and doing almost the same to Johnson’s right arm.
“It cut my arm in half, basically,” she said.
The accident tore her tricep in her throwing arm in half. When she got to the hospital, she had a tear in her lung and another in her liver. But because no major nerve damage was done in the muscle tear, doctors were able to repair the damage and restore her arm functions.
But it has been a long process.
“I am not the same,” Johnson said. “I had to come back and reset myself.”
For a softball player, the high school season is played for school pride and the quest for a championship with your teammates, but the real work toward a college career is done in the summer, when select teams travel to play tournaments against elite players around the country. Johnson’s summer involved sitting with her arm in a V-shaped sling, leaving her looking like Rodin’s sculpture, “The Thinker.”
She wasn’t cleared to get back on the field until a week before the high school season began, and not surprisingly has struggled at the plate at times.
As a junior, Johnson was named to The Daily Citizen All-Area Softball Team for the third straight year, hitting .544 with 20 doubles, four home runs, 23 runs scored and 36 RBIs. This season, she is hitting less than .300.
“Mykeah hasn’t had her best year, but she has had some big hits and is sort of our emotional leader,” said Northwest coach Jason Brooker, who is in his first year leading the Lady Bruins. “She had that wreck and she doesn’t want to use that as an excuse, but she is finally getting back to her old self at the right time for us.”
Johnson is less concerned about herself than her team, though. And she knows she can help write the perfect ending to her senior season’s story in Columbus.
“My arm doesn’t bother me, but not playing this summer tells a lot of the story,” Johnson said. “I’ve had struggles, but if I can’t do it, I know that my team is there to pick me up. If I can’t get the hit, I can play good defense and contribute in other ways.
“So this is my comeback. I was expecting to do better, but as long as my team picks me up, I know that we can do this.”