By Marty Kirkland
A car accident left Northwest Whitfield softball standout Mykeah Johnson with a torn triceps, a scar to remind her of a frightening moment she’s not likely to forget and a senior season in which hitting became more of a challenge than she would have expected.
It did nothing to damage her spirit, though, and for that the Lady Bruins were thankful.
As much any big hit, pitch or catch, Johnson’s vocal leadership and positive attitude played an uplifting role in Northwest’s run to this year’s Class 4A state title, the school’s first in fast-pitch softball after two trips to the state tournament in the previous three seasons.
The ability to make others around her better is a skill Johnson — who played left field as a freshman before starting at third base the past three seasons — has little doubt she’ll be able to transfer to the college game when she begins her career at East Tennessee State University next year. She celebrated signing scholarship papers with the Division I program on Tuesday at Northwest.
“It’s a higher level, more competition,” said Johnson, who was decked out in her new team’s colors — a blue top and gold pants — while surrounded by teammates, classmates, friends and family at the celebration. “Their game is just like my game, so I have to find something to make me stand out. I just want to go and make sure I can help my team out in any way ... whatever coach wants me to do, I’ll be there, ready to do it. I’m excited.”
Tuesday was understandably a big day for Johnson, whose 2012 has been a year of ups and downs. While moments like the signing ceremony and winning the state title with a 2-1, extra-inning victory against Madison County were highs she’ll be hard-pressed to top on the athletic stage, there were challenges on and off the field.
On May 5, Johnson survived a harrowing car accident just north of Cartersville on I-75 while traveling home. Her vehicle was pushed into a guard rail when another car veered into her lane, and the rail sliced into her car and left her with tears in her right triceps, liver and one of her lungs.
Johnson knows the damage and outcome could have been worse, but the effects of the wreck were anything but minimal. She missed most of the offseason training and travel softball schedule she would have participated in to prepare for a highly anticipated senior season.
Cleared just a week before the Lady Bruins began official practice in August, Johnson took a while to get going at the plate and finished the year with a .280 average, seven doubles, a triple and a home run while drawing 14 walks, driving in 18 runs and scoring 21.
While still valuable in Northwest’s lineup, the numbers didn’t match Johnson’s junior season of .544 with 20 doubles, four home runs and 36 RBIs. Those 2011 totals helped her share the Region 7-4A Player of the Year award with teammate Bayli Cruse, earn a third straight selection to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Team and be chosen to the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association’s Class 4A All-State First Team for the first time after earning honorable mention as a freshman.
But Johnson held down the hot corner and maintained a valuable role in the dugout even when she wasn’t at her best at the plate. Fellow seniors Emily Boyd, a pitcher who has signed with Ole Miss, and second baseman Karlie Henson can testify to that.
“She’s always had a very strong personality that’s able to rub off on other people and set the tone,” said Boyd, who had played with Johnson since sixth grade at North Whitfield Middle. “She’s always been able to be vocal and get a message across that other people would hear.
“I think that’s really her greatest asset, on top of just being athletic, is her ability to make her words matter. She’s always had confidence. No matter who we’re playing against, we can always look to her for the confidence.”
Henson, who has played travel softball with Johnson since elementary school, said it was frightening initially learning about her teammate’s accident. She was relieved to know she would be back for the season, and the challenge Johnson faced wasn’t lost on Henson.
“It was tough to see her frustrated, especially with her throwing and stuff like that,” Henson said. “Because it is a big hit to your ability to throw when you cut through the muscle on your arm. So it was tough to see her frustrated, but she worked through it and she helped us win a state championship.”
Jason Brooker’s first year as coach of a talented group ended with the Lady Bruins’ biggest goal accomplished. But he knows his job was made easier by having a player like Johnson on his side, and during Tuesday’s ceremony he said his only regret regarding the third baseman was that he “only got to know her for six months.”
Later, he put her contributions in perspective.
“For me, coming in this year, it was great to have somebody like her, with her experience and leadership,” said Brooker, who also complimented Johnson’s ability to hit to all fields. “She never really got rattled, was always composed even when we were down and kind of kept everybody on an even keel. She always stayed positive.”
Johnson isn’t sure what position she’ll play for East Tennessee, but the expectation of early playing time is one thing that led her to choose the Buccaneers. She committed to the program in March, but said she was won over even before she made her first official visit to the campus in Johnson City, Tenn., because she attended a camp there as a sophomore and was also impressed when Bucs coach Brad Irwin took an interest in her at another school’s camp.
She also considered Shorter University, Alabama State, North Carolina A&T and Georgia Southern before making the commitment to the Bucs, who compete in the Southern Conference.
“It was the place for me,” Johnson said.
East Tennessee went 11-38 overall and 1-17 in conference play this season, the second under Irwin, a former assistant at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. The Bucs were 15-33 and 3-17 in Irwin’s initial campaign.
In a release on the school’s athletic website, Irwin hailed Johnson’s versatility and said, “We are excited about the potential Mykeah brings to our program.”