N.D. GIRLS FASTPITCH SOFTBALL: Setting the bar high
Those are pressure situations. But for the 52-year-old, the hardest part of softball has been as coach of the powerhouse West Fargo High School girls fastpitch team.
“Coaching’s a little more difficult,” said Johnson, who is a member of the North Dakota Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame. “You prepare the kids the best you can and hope they perform to the best of their abilities.
“When you’re playing, you have a direct impact on what happens when you’re out there. You can’t go out there and do it yourself when you’re coaching. It’s more nerve-wracking.”
That may be. But the coaching skills of Johnson have been as effective as is his right arm when he is pitching. West Fargo won its 17th consecutive state high school championship this spring — the first 11 when it was a club sport and the past six after fastpitch became a sanctioned sport by the North Dakota High School Activities Association.
Johnson is in Grand Forks this week with his West Fargo summer teams playing in the annual NDASA Junior Olympic girls state fastpitch tournament.
Johnson shrugs off his contributions to the Packers’ dominance. “Its hats off to the girls,” he said. “Every year it’s a different group. But they always are prepared. They work hard every day.”
But Johnson has been the one constant in the string of Packer state titles.
He says there is a system in place. Once the spring season starts, it is practice indoors six days a week, three hours a day, until the team can get outside. It is working over the summer. It is stressing fundamentals. It is not standing pat, but finding new wrinkles and adding a few things every season.
“We always build around defense first,” Johnson said. “You always give yourself a chance to win if you play good defense. And we’ve had some pretty good pitchers.”
That includes a challenging batting practice pitcher every day.
“I throw (batting practice) every day,” Johnson said. “I don’t throw as hard as I can. But I throw hard.”
Whatever the Packers are doing, it works. Over the past 17 seasons, they’ve lost one game at a state high school tournament; that didn’t detour them, as it was a double-elimination tournament at that time and they went on to win.
Johnson has had the satisfaction of having both of his daughters, Erin of having both of his daughters, Erin and Kacie, play on his championship teams. On the other hand, Erin was an assistant coach on the Minot Ryan teams West Fargo beat in the last two state title games. “It wasn’t about beating my daughter. It was our team beating the other team,” Johnson said.
The state JO tournament is another stepping stone for the West Fargo team. It is looking ahead to next season and beyond.
Johnson said he doesn’t reflect on past successes.
“We’re always looking ahead, looking at what we have to do for the next year,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, when I retire, then I’ll have the time to look back and think, yeah, we did something pretty special.”
In the meantime, West Fargo is a program one opponent compares to baseball’s New York Yankees— a team that always contends, but isn’t always popular because of that success.
“We’ve had a pretty good run,” Johnson said. “Every year, other teams are getting better and better. And we don’t have teams rooting for us. We know that. And that sort of drives us.”