Rising Star: Outfielder Jenna Johnson Ready To Roll Tide Roll

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Jenna Johnson will do just about anything to help her team win, even if it means putting herself at great physical risk. Her parents and coaches hold their breath every time she slides headfirst into a base on a steal or attempting to beat out a grounder. Even temporary fencing is no match for the 5-foot-7 right-handed-hitting outfielder. Many batters have gone back to the dugout in utter disbelief after Johnson vaulted over the fence to rob them of a home run.

One such occasion occurred last month. Johnson, a native of Franklin, Tennessee, was wrapping up her senior season with Page High School. The Patriots were facing Brentwood in an elimination game during the district tournament, and the game had gone to extra innings.

Former Patriot Ansley Casillas hit a scorching line drive that was headed over the low mesh fence in center field. Johnson raced after it, jumped over the fence and made the catch, taking a home run away from her former teammate and preserving a Patriot victory.

“I remember (thinking) this ball is not getting over, because if she were to hit it over, it was game over,” recalled Johnson, who is planning to attend the University of Alabama this fall. “I wasn’t about to let that happen.”

Spectacular catches have become almost routine for Johnson, who also plays for the Tennessee Fury Platinum 18U team. She acknowledges her style of play may be considered reckless by some, but her objective is simple: to go all-out in everything she does. 

She credits her father, Keith, for instilling that competitiveness in her at an early age. Keith, who played the outfield in high school is also Jenna’s hitting instructor, and coaches her sister, Lauren, on the Fury 14U squad.

“He has taught me everything in softball, from hitting and fielding to the mental side of the game,” Jenna said. “I wouldn’t be the player I am without him.”

At age eight, Jenna tried out for the Franklin Flames, the team that eventually became the Fury. Sam Thomas, head coach for Fury Platinum, calls Jenna a five-tool player.

“She’s fast, smart, a competitive kid with a high softball IQ,” said Thomas, who has coached travel ball for 22 years. “She’s fearless.” 

She’s also resilient. Thomas recalls the first time Jenna played the outfield during her initial tryout with the Flames. She was in left field when a fly ball bounced off her glove and hit her in the middle of her forehead.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen a ball hit the ground since,” Thomas said with a chuckle. “She’s the best outfielder you’re going to find, and I’ll stand by that (because) I’ve seen every team in the country play.”

Many kids don’t enjoy baserunning drills, but Jenna embraces them. She regularly works on perfecting her form and runs hills with Keith to build leg strength and endurance.

“I like to run,” Jenna explained. “I take pride in it because if you can excel at something that other people might not be putting their hardest effort into, that’s when you can take it a step above other players.”

At the plate, Keith teaches his daughter more than just swing mechanics. He emphasizes the importance of possessing a plan for every at-bat.

“I always tell Jenna you’re not just going up against that pitcher, you’re going up against a coach who’s looking at you and trying to figure out the best pitch to get you out,” Keith said. “You’ve got to be smart in your approach and your plan, what you swing at and when you swing.”

Jenna left Page High with a career .561 batting average and .640 on-base percentage, with 27 home runs, 125 RBI, 87 steals and a .988 fielding percentage at shortstop. In 2018 with the Fury, she hit .381/.440 with 13 homers, 52 RBI and 12 stolen bases.

Derailed

As a native Tennessean, Jenna grew up a Volunteers fan. Keith went to college there, so Jenna envisioned herself playing softball at Tennessee when the time came. But a freak injury and an unexpected encounter during a recruiting camp at Alabama changed everything.

During the summer following her eighth-grade year, Jenna was attempting to turn a double play at shortstop when one of her cleats got stuck, dislocating her kneecap. A tendon was also torn, and she was fitted with a leg brace.

As she lay on the training table, Jenna’s spirits felt about as shattered as her knee. This was the period when several SEC programs were taking notice of her. It was also the final day of camp, and she hadn’t gotten a chance to hit yet. She was convinced her chances of going to an SEC school, or any major program for that matter, had just evaporated.

Suddenly, someone walked into the training room and came over to Jenna. To her surprise, she realized it was Crimson Tide head softball coach Patrick Murphy. What he said next has stuck with her to this day.

“He talked to me for probably 30 minutes,” Jenna recalled. “He told me that injuries don’t define me. Hearing that really changed things for me. (My) devastation was short-lived.”

Roll Tide Roll

Alabama finished the 2019 season 60-10 and advanced to the semifinals of the Women’s College World Series before bowing to Oklahoma. It marked the 12th WCWS appearance for the Tide and their sixth time in the semifinal round. Murphy garnered SEC Coach of the Year honors, and his staff received the NFCA South Region Coaching Staff of the Year award.

But it was more than wins and losses that attracted Jenna; it was the team culture and passion for softball by the school’s fan base that caught her attention. One game against Tennessee during Alabama Bash weekend stands out.

“I just remember that game being one of the most energy-filled, exciting atmospheres that I’ve ever been a part of,” she said. “Everyone hears about Rhoads Stadium being one of the toughest environments to play in because of the fans. But when you go to a game, you realize what all the talk is about. These fans love Alabama softball.”

The fact that Murphy hasn’t been specific to Jenna about her role as a freshman next season doesn’t faze her at all.

“I think that’s what makes him such a great coach,” Jenna said. “When you go to Alabama, he preaches to us that we’re going to have to prove we can be on the field. It doesn’t let us get settled. We’re always competing, always working to get better.”

One thing that won’t be a part of Jenna’s college softball experience is the low temporary fencing she’s been accustomed to jumping over. But that’s perfectly fine with her.


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