By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Molly Johnson’s schedule is so packed that even the most avid color-coding, tab-applying, e-mail flagging, highly organized person might become overwhelmed at the number of tasks for which she is responsible.
University of Kentucky assistant softball coach, Team USA squad member and graduate student are the main three titles that characterize the former Wildcat letterwinner (2007-10) and within those are a plethora of responsibilities and expectations she must fulfill.
Not only is that juggling act not a problem for Johnson, she accomplishes those tasks at a high level on a daily basis without stress.
“She could be juggling 20 different things and you’d never even notice,” said Kentucky senior Brittany Cervantes, a former college teammate of Johnson. “One thing I really admire about Molly is that she is calm about everything. It’s just the way she carries herself; she is always on time, if not early and finds time to workout and coach and be ready for practice. She always has everything in check. That’s one of her great qualities – she is very organized.”
Let’s put this in perspective.
Not only is Johnson a former Kentucky player and current assistant coach. She is the first and only All-American in program history and, in her first season in the coaching box in 2011, helped lead the Wildcats to their best-ever season with a 40-16 overall record and the school’s first-ever NCAA Super Regional appearance.
Not only does Johnson play for Team USA, she also led the United States in batting average during the Pan Am Games – in which the US won the Gold – with a sizzling .706 clip. She was 12-of-17 at the plate in eight appearances with four doubles and eight RBI.
Not only is Johnson a student. She is pursuing her master’s degree in sport leadership at which she excels at the highest level in the classroom and was an NFCA Academic All-American during her playing days.
Bottom line, Johnson just gets the job done.
Rachel Lawson knew that Johnson was destined to be a coach the first time she ever met her standout infielder in the summer of 2007.
Lawson had just been hired from Western Kentucky with the charge to turn the University of Kentucky program into a championship contender. She knew that Johnson would be one of the players that would help get the Wildcats turned in the right direction.
Sure, her numbers as a freshman had been impressive. Johnson batted .340 as a rookie and led her team in doubles with 11. She had been a two-time Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week selection, playing primarily third base that first year.
But it was something else about Johnson that caught Lawson’s eye.
“Early on, she wanted to go into medicine, but the day I met her I could tell, just being outside on the ballfield, she was a rat; she wanted to be out on the field all day,” Lawson said. “It took her a while to approach us about coaching, but I knew the day I met her that she wouldn’t be in medicine. I knew that, one day, she would have a natural transition to our coaching staff.”
Even before Johnson joined Kentucky’s coaching staff, she was finding ways to make her teammates better on a daily basis. She was a very cerebral player and was able to effectively communicate what she saw to others.
“She had great instincts as a player,” Lawson said. “She can play every position on the field in a thinking way, not just an athletic way and she can articulate that to other people on the team. Things that are simple to her are very complex to other people and she was able to explain them. Those are the things you need to be able to do as a good coach.”
Cervantes said that Johnson was always a leader when she played for the Wildcats, and helped her teammates adjust to Lawson’s new coaching style during the transition.
“Coach Lawson kind of has her own unique coaching style and she and Molly were definitely on the same page,” Cervantes said. “When Molly was a player, she wasn’t the most outspoken, but she led by example. She was a natural-born leader and she was always making sure that she understood everything and that everybody on the team understood it, as well. Those were early signs that she was going to be a quality coach.”
Johnson knew what good softball looked like. She grew up in Tucson, Ariz., during the height of the Arizona program’s success and watched as a different group of Wildcats competed among the nation’s elite.
She wanted to have the opportunity to help be a part of building a successful program at Kentucky. The idea of being one of the cornerstones of a great softball tradition was one that was very appealing to Johnson. All things considered, she has done just that.
“Playing at Kentucky was a great experience,” Johnson said. “I knew I wanted to come to the East and knew I could help build a program. When Coach Lawson got here, she really got the ball rolling in turning things around. It was fun from a player’s perspective, but it has been even better to stay here.”
Right around the time Lawson met Johnson and knew her pupil was destined for a future in coaching, Johnson began to toss around the idea. She was working camps in the summer and realized that no other line of work was better suited to her interests and passion.
“I think after my freshman year, working camps in the summer initiated my interest in it,” Johnson said. “The way it worked out was that the players were coaching some of the teams at camps. That started me working all the camps every summer and in the fall, and that just solidified it. Just being part of the sport and being outdoors really makes me happy and it’s what I love to do.”
It was almost as if Johnson’s career in coaching was destined to happen at her alma mater – the place where she made so much of a difference in elevating the program to the next level. She was perhaps the most productive player in school history and closed her collegiate career as the school’s all-time leader in home runs (35) and batting average (.389). She played in more than 100 career games.
Johnson had spent time as an undergraduate volunteer assistant coach at UK and, in December 2010, when former assistant coach Lyndsey Angus departed Lexington, Johnson was hired on as one of her team’s assistant coaches.
It would be an interesting dynamic as the youthful Johnson would be coaching many of her former teammates from the year before. Lawson said that Johnson’s maturity alleviated any concern about putting her former player in that unique situation.
“She was always basically 18 going on 35 anyway,” Lawson joked. “She is very wise and mature for her age – she always has been. That has been a great attribute of hers. She is able to see things in a very mature light and has always made good choices and good decisions.”
Cervantes said that the transition of Johnson from the field to the dugout seemed to be almost a natural one in the minds of her teammates. Johnson quipped that the only awkwardness about the situation was that the current players just weren’t sure whether to call her “Molly” or “Coach.”
“I wouldn’t say that it was that big of a transition,” Cervantes said. “I feel like when she was my teammate, sometimes she was a little hesitant to help people out because she wasn’t sure how they would take it. Now that she’s a coach, she is more comfortable and really more able to help me out. We know that she is only trying to make us better. She was a one-of-a-kind player and it’s to our advantage to have her as one of our coaches.”
Lawson agreed, saying that if anything, Johnson’s age and her proximity to her own collegiate playing days has proven to be a tremendous asset to her staff.
“She can relate to them on a level that I can’t,” Lawson admitted. “I played so long ago, sometimes I forget what it feels like to be an athlete and be going to school at the same time. She is closer to their age, so she still remembers what it’s like to have to balance both. She can still relate to them because she plays at a very high level with Team USA and that’s important because one of our team goals is to always compete at a high level. Molly is able to give them insight into what it takes to be successful playing in the SEC.”
That ability to relate is just one of many reasons that the players have responded to Johnson.
“The girls have been pretty receptive to me becoming a coach,” she said. “What’s nice is that I can relate to everything they’re doing. When they’re going through workouts, I know the pain they’re feeling because I have gone through those workouts. It’s been really great.”
It’s the first thing that comes to mind when Lawson thinks about Johnson. And that doesn’t just speak to the success that her former shortstop has had on the diamond.
“No matter what you put her in, she wins,” Lawson said. “It doesn’t matter what skill it takes. If you play cards with her, she wants to win. She is just a winner. The other thing about her is that she never takes a play off, not just on the softball field. She just never stops and she never has a weak moment. Those two things – if every athlete were able to do that, it would be really special.”
Cervantes says she has always looked up to Johnson and modeled herself after her current assistant coach in a number of aspects in life.
“She is a role model; she is the kind of player that I want to be and, as a person, she is just all out helpful,” Cervantes said. “I definitely looked up to her because she played the game with such aggression. She was never afraid of anything and she was clutch. She was everything you wanted in a player. She is always looking to make sure people get better and is setting a good example. That’s the kind of person I want to be.”
For Johnson, she says there’s not really any secret. The things that make her successful have just always been a part of her.
“Because I want to win at everything and be the best, I just have to do whatever it takes to be the best,” Johnson said. “No matter how much pain, it’s going to cause, I want to win, so I have to give everything that I have.”
The signs of Kentucky’s success are everywhere. When you look at where the Wildcats were and how far they’ve come, it’s hard not to be impressed. Lawson’s affect on the program has been paramount, but so too has the impact of Johnson.
Is there anything that legitimizes a program more than having one of its alumna leading Team USA in batting average in the Pan Am Games en route to a gold-medal winning effort?
“It’s a huge statement,” Cervantes said. “Just thinking about the fact that someone who wore the Kentucky jersey now plays for the US team, and every girl dreams about. To be able to play for Team USA and say that you played for Kentucky really puts our name on the map. That class did so much to put us on the map, going to the NCAA Tournament and going to postseason, but to be a part of Team USA says a lot.”
Lawson gives all the credit to Johnson, but says that because of that exposure, the Kentucky program has gained added visibility.
“First of all, it’s great for Molly, she is truly an outstanding player,” Lawson said. “But before that, UK could have been able to compete day in and day out on a national level and it may have gone unnoticed. She is truly one of the best players I have ever seen and we’re definitely reaping the benefits of that. It just shows you that no matter where you come from, you can compete at the highest level. It gives us a lot of visibility, because if you want to play at Kentucky and someday be on the national team, she has proven it can happen.”
Johnson has been a member of the U.S. National Team since the summer of 2009 and, more impressively, has had to battle back from a pair of injuries during her international career, after having never been injured in college. For most, the story of recovery and redemption would have been a major theme, but not for Johnson. Her preparation and training make her rehabilitation almost seamless.
“When she was playing here, Molly was a machine – she was our best runner and our best lifter,” Lawson said. “Her injuries shocked me because she’s so strong and did everything the right way. Because she is so strong and does so much work on the front end, she is able to rehab faster than anyone I’ve seen.”
Her second injury came just weeks before the Pan Am Games and for most it would seem doubtful that they would be able to play, much less dominate. When it comes to Johnson, so much for that theory.
“That was a really short time frame before Pan Ams and I don’t believe she was 100 percent,” Lawson said. “What she was able to accomplish is just a tribute to all the work she has done on the front end. It wasn’t a struggle for her to rehab, because she does it every day. It’s part of her life. She always approaches things the same way; she knew if she stayed the course, things would get better.”
Johnson agrees, saying that her preparation is what kept her from becoming sidelined during her injuries.
“I had a pretty good foundation from all the strength and conditioning, so I was confident I could come back from the injury,” Johnson said. “I was hoping to go injury free, but I had a good foundation and I was able to come back. Injuries are no fun, but I was really lucky. I just worked hard to recover because I still wanted to continue to play.”
As accomplished as Johnson is on the softball field, the balancing act that she pulls off each and every day might be one of her most impressive triumphs.
She never allows the multitude of responsibilities to overwhelm her and it’s almost as if she views each of her tasks separately so that she never feels the burden of their cumulative effect.
“Because she has such great time management skills, Molly really understands how to compartmentalize her life,” Lawson said. “When she’s at school, she focuses on school; when she’s at work, she focuses on work; and when she’s training for the national team, she’s training for the national team. She focuses solely on that – on the task at hand. She never brings thoughts about the national team out to practice. But when she goes out there and plays, she becomes Molly the player.”
Johnson takes six credit hours each semester towards her master’s degree and is fortunate that the majority of her work with Team USA comes during the summer months. Lawson has organized the responsibilities on the staff so that she and assistant coach Kristine Himes handle the majority of the recruiting aspects, freeing up Johnson to focus on her international playing career.
“From a time perspective, the national team is great,” Lawson said. “A lot of their activities are done in the summer and Coach Himes is doing the brunt of the recruiting right now, but we’ll get that back in the future. It’s kind of a collective effort on our part to make sure that Molly can still continue to play.”
The desire to be successful in each area of her life and her passion for each of the things she is doing appears to be the key to Johnson’s ability to juggle.
“It’s not that difficult if it’s what you want to do,” Johnson said. “The USA softball stuff is in the summer time, so during the year, I just have to stay in shape and be ready to compete. I have to separate things UK and USA. Pursuing my master’s degree is not too bad because I’m only doing six credit hours a semester, which is what my schedule will allow, and the classes are fun because they’re relevant to sports and what I’m doing, so it makes me happy.”
Having Johnson on staff is quite an example for Kentucky’s softball players.
If Lawson ever needs to show her players what she wants them to aspire to, she has to look no further than her assistant coach. And those players have no excuse not to succeed, because Johnson did so in their exact same situation.
Johnson wants to make sure that her teammates carry on that legacy.
“I hope they look at all the hard work that I put in,” she said. “As an athlete, I wanted to win at everything: lifting, running, everything. I want them to continue to work hard and know that it’s possible at Kentucky. As a coach, I would love for our team to get to the College World Series. I think if they really focus on what they need to do that it’s a possibility.”
Lawson knows it is a possibility too; something made possible largely because of Johnson’s impact on her program. Those characteristics that continue to make Johnson successful as a player make her even more admirable as a role model.
“She is really down to earth,” Lawson said. “She is so even-keeled and such a good teammate. She is probably one of the most loyal people that I have ever been around. In a lot of ways, she is just one of the most normal people that you will ever meet.
“She is pretty special.”