Heach coach Heather Johnson, with her husband Jay Johnson as an assistant, has led the Grace College Lady Lancers to the NCCAA World Series for the second consecutive year. Photo by Josh Neuhart
Heach coach Heather Johnson, with her husband Jay Johnson as an assistant, has led the Grace College Lady Lancers to the NCCAA World Series for the second consecutive year. Photo by Josh Neuhart
WINONA LAKE – In her six seasons at the helm of Grace College's softball program, coach Heather Johnson says the Lady Lancers have gone from treading water to righting the ship to where they are now, putting the boat into a higher gear.
Two years ago, Grace won 19 games. Last year, the Lady Lancers won 29 games and finished fourth in the 10-team NCCAA World Series, making their first national tournament appearance since 1997.
Grace is back in the NCCAA World Series for a second-consecutive year, as the Lady Lancers take a 31-25 record and a No. 5 seeding into Wednesday's opening-round game against No. 4 seed Oklahoma Christian (28-19).
The double-elimination tournament is again being held at Botetourt Sports Complex in Botetourt, Va.
The field is comprised of No. 1 seed Judson (Ill.), No. 2 Simpson (Calif.), No. 3 Lee (Tenn.), No. 4 Oklahoma Christian, No. 5 Grace, No. 6 Southern Wesleyan (S.C.), No. 7 Central Baptist (Ark.), No. 8 Mississippi College, No. 9 Oklahoma Wesleyan and No. 10 Cedarville (Ohio).
“We've come a long way,” said Johnson. “The first three years, we were treading water. In the fourth and fifth seasons, we were righting the ship. This year, we're putting the boat in a higher gear.”
The Lady Lancers have won five of their last six games, including three victories en route to the NCCAA Midwest Regional championship.
Johnson said this week's tournament is more business than last year, and that the team isn't going to be satisfied with just advancing to the national tournament.
“They talked about plans to go back even before we knew we made it, where last year it was kind of like ‘Whoa, we get to go,’ and this year we expected to go. I think this year we're more driven. This year we've talked about hanging a banner. We really wanna hang a banner. We wanna do something that's impactful for the program. So, I think they're going down there wanting to do more than just compete.”
If Grace's current players need a role model, someone to teach them how to win, they need look no further than their head coach.
Johnson's resumé as a player is a laundry list of accomplishments.
In fact, prior to this year, the last time Grace won 30 games in a season was 1994, and Johnson – then Heather Everhart – was the team's standout pitcher.
In her senior season, Johnson set school records for innings pitched (238), strikeouts (253), wins (28) and ERA (0.56).
Johnson was an NAIA All-American as a senior and took the Lady Lancers to their first national tournament, and the team's Cinderella postseason run produced four victories, including a win over top-ranked Kennesaw State, who boasted a record of 44-2.
After her stellar senior season, Johnson was honored by USA Softball and invited to the Olympic tryouts.
Johnson was later honored by Grace College and was a member of the school's inaugural hall of fame class in 2008.
“I think for me coming back to coach, my whole reasoning, our reasoning as a family, was to contribute to Grace College as a family, and to put the program back on the map,” said Johnson. “A goal of mine is to coach someone to break my pitching records. I feel like it's a really unique opportunity to play and make an impact and then turn around and come back and coach and have a similar impact on these young women. It's just nice to have made the progress we've made, and to do things the right way, which we think we are.”
Just as Grace's players don't have to look far to see an example of a great player, Johnson doesn't have to look far to see her biggest supporter.
Johnson's husband of 17 years, Jay Johnson, is an assistant coach for the Lady Lancers.
Jay Johnson played baseball collegiately at Montreat College in N.C., and the Johnsons’ faith and strong marriage only adds to the "family" atmosphere they're trying to bring to the program.
“People ask us that all the time, ‘how in the world do you do it?’, Jay Johnson said of coaching with his wife. “The bottom line is it comes down to the good Lord. Like any marriage, you have strengths and weaknesses, and in this scenario we strengthen each other's weaknesses.”
As for being an assistant for his wife at Grace College, where his wife already had such a history before she took the job, Jay Johnson said it comes down to respect.
“It's unique,” said Jay Johnson. “I think it comes down first to respect. You know, respecting what she has accomplished. And often, she won't toot her own horn, so sometimes I'll do that for her. Call it humility with her, she just doesn't like to show that side, but I think there's times she needs to. When we first came to town, word got out and it was like ‘Oh my gosh Heather's back at Grace’ and this that and the other. But she earned that. She earned the accolades and the respect. It'll be interesting if anybody will ever be able to break her pitching records. We're cranking on the offensive records, which is cool, but she set that bar really really high when she was here.”
Freshman Chandler Elliott leads the Lady Lancers in pitching wins this season with 14. She’s struck out 74 batters in 158 innings of work, while sophomore Allison Franklin has fanned 55 batters in 48 innings.
Junior Alex Shipley leads the team with an ERA of 3.29 and has pitched 61 innings.
Offensively, senior Brooke Shell leads the Lady Lancers with 88 hits this season, while Elliott and sophomore Clarissa Knight have 77 and 73 hits, respectively.
Shell leads Grace with a .433 batting average, followed by Knight (.429), freshman Hannah Herbster (.412) and Chandler (.407).
“When we are playing our ‘A game’ we are a very effective crew, very fast, very aggressive,” said Heather Johnson. “We really talk about playing fence to foul line a lot and doing those extra things and laying out and making play. When we are successful, that’s what this team is doing.
“We’re a very athletic team,” continued the coach. “We’re young again, I think that’s a comment I make every year. We have one true four-year senior, one three-year senior. We, again, are young. We only have two returners playing the position they did last year, and because of that I think we’ve had some growing pains, but we’re a very athletic, very tough group. When we’re on our ‘A game’ we’re hard to get out.”