Page High School softball star Jenna Johnson was glued to the TV for several days earlier this month. Binge-watching, you could say.
The Alabama softball team was pursuing a national championship at the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, and Johnson was totally locked in.
“You can bet I watched every game,” Johnson said.
And she couldn’t help but do a little daydreaming, too.
Johnson was envisioning herself on the field at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium, wearing a crimson-and-white uniform and doing her part to help Alabama win the national championship.
The mental image wasn’t fiction or fairytale. Instead, it’s a reality that is very much within reach for Johnson, who signed with Alabama in November and will head to Tuscaloosa in August to officially join the Crimson Tide program.
“You fantasize about it all the time when you’re watching these girls on TV,” said Johnson. “But now, to realize that it could happen for me next year — that I could be playing in the College World Series — it’s really cool to think about.”
Johnson will be joining an Alabama program that seems to have all the ingredients to make it back to Oklahoma City next spring. The Crimson Tide, under head coach Patrick Murphy, is losing only four seniors from this year’s team, which advanced to the College World Series semifinals before being eliminated by Oklahoma.
Johnson will head to Alabama after producing one of the most decorated careers in the history of the Page program. Playing for head coach Dawn Hale all four years, Johnson was a two-time all-state honoree and was named the District 11-AAA MVP as a junior. She recently capped her high school career with an invite to participate in the Premier Girls Fastpitch High School All-American Game in Irvine, California.
Johnson, who batted .476 with six homers and 24 RBIs this season for the Lady Patriots, has earned the reputation as being one of the best defensive players the region has ever produced. She was named the district’s Gold Glove recipient this year after producing a season’s worth of highlight-reel plays, including a dazzling game-saving catch during Page’s upset of Brentwood in the tournament. On that play, Johnson robbed Brentwood of a would-be walk-off homer in the bottom of the seventh by making a terrific catch while crashing into — and tumbling over — the fence in center field. Page ultimately won the game in nine innings.
“I won’t ever forget that game,” Johnson said.
Bound for ’Bama
Throughout her childhood and into middle school, Johnson was a Tennessee fan. She has orange in her bloodlines — her dad is a UT grad — and Johnson hoped she would one day play for the Lady Vols.
Life, of course, is full of surprises.
“When I started going to all the different camps and seeing the different schools, I really started to realize there was more that I wanted to explore,” Johnson said.
And then it happened.
While attending camp at Alabama, Johnson said she just knew that was where she wanted to go. She verbally committed to the Crimson Tide in the summer before her freshman year at Page.
At that point, she became immersed with all things Alabama and turned from her Tennessee tendencies. Goodbye, Rocky Top. Hello, T-Town.
“When I went to a game at Alabama — on their Bama Bash weekend — it was incredible,” Johnson said. “They actually were playing Tennessee, which is the funny thing about it. At first, I was kind of conflicted: Do I root for Tennessee or Alabama? It was a tough one. But just seeing Rhoads Stadium and getting to be in that atmosphere, it was just incredible.”
Although she hasn’t yet played a game for the Crimson Tide, Johnson has been a part of the Alabama program, in a sense, for almost four years. She’s had the phrase “Alabama commit” attached to her name throughout her high school career. In just a matter of weeks, she’ll see her name on the Crimson Tide roster.
“We are thrilled to get a young lady the caliber of Jenna to join our family,” Alabama’s Murphy said.
Johnson will likely play outfield in college, although she could be utilized in a different role. Frankly, she doesn’t care.
“Honestly, whatever position is open, that’s what I am going to try to fill,” she said. “I think I’m going to play outfield, but coach Murphy is one of those coaches who can turn any player into any athlete he needs.”
Johnson’s career hasn’t been all homers and heroic moments. There have been some hardships, too.
While attending softball camp at Alabama in the summer of her eighth-grade year, Johnson dislocated her knee cap while playing shortstop in a game on the final day of camp at Rhoads Stadium.
Johnson was worried that the injury might cloud her future. Instead, it was perhaps the moment when everything became very clear.
“They took me to the training room, and I was sitting in there, kind of freaking out because I knew that was such an important time,” Johnson said. “The summer between your eighth-grade year and your freshman year was the biggest recruiting time — before the new rule got put in place. So, I was sitting there, and I kind of lost hope, in a way. I remember thinking that my chances of going to Alabama were over. I was really devastated.”
“But coach Murphy came in and sat with me and talked with me,” Johnson continued. “And it was just so encouraging. Because there was still a camp going on, but he was in there, in the training room, with me. He told me, ‘Injuries don’t define you.’ And, honestly, just hearing that, really changed things for me.”
The injury prevented Johnson from getting her moment in the sun that day. She was scheduled to bat leadoff the next inning before hurting her knee.
“When you play a game at Rhoads Stadium, that’s what you want to do — you want to get in that batter’s box,” she said. “So that was disappointing.”
Funny how things work out, though. In the coming years, she’s very likely to get several hundred at-bats in that very batter’s box.
Preparing for the big stage
Playing softball in the SEC is challenging. That’s just a fact. The SEC is widely considered the best softball conference in the nation, and there’s plenty of proof behind that sentiment. For each of the past three seasons, all 13 of the SEC’s softball schools (Vanderbilt doesn’t have a softball program) have made it to the NCAA tournament.
Johnson, though, probably won’t have much of an adjustment period. She’s played against top competition for basically her whole life.
In addition to routinely facing quality opponents in District 11-AAA, Johnson is also a member of the Fury Platinum, a travel team coached by Sam Thomas and Joe Fowler. The team, formerly known as the Franklin Flames, placed fifth at TCS Nationals last year.
Johnson believes her high school experience — and her high school coaches — have prepared her for the rigors of SEC softball.
“Coach Hale was a very big influence on my life,” Johnson said. “I’ve learned so many new things from her — she played college softball at Belmont — while playing under her the past four years. And (Thomas and Fowler) have made a big impact on my life and my career, too.”
Johnson said she’s beyond excited to know that, come next year, she’ll be lining up with — and against — the very best college softball players in the nation.
“It’s definitely a huge honor to play in the SEC,” she said. “I think the SEC is the most competitive conference in the country, and I am excited to be a part of that. And to be able to play against some of the best teams in the nation, and, hopefully, to be able to play in the World Series — it’s just awesome.”
For some players, that might sound like a far-fetched dream. For Johnson, it seems like only a matter of time.