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Program-changer Johnson has blazed new trails for UK softball

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SBL 09_10 UK_LSU Game3 Web 21.jpgMolly Johnson is the most important player in Kentucky softball history. She is quite possibly the most important player to her team in college softball.

"There are awards for most valuable player and I don't know if there is one for most exceptional player, but there should be one because she is the most exceptional player on our team," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "She can throw and she is fast, she is strong, she can hit, she does all the intangible things right and she does everything right off the field. There aren't many people like her. They are few and far between, and we've benefited from who she is. I'm not sure we'd be able to do what we've done without her. I doubt it, but I don't know if the program would be where it is now without her."

Johnson was the most important player her freshman year when former coach Eileen Schmidt sat Johnson and second baseman Natalie Smith down and told them it was time to stop playing like freshmen and take control of the team. She was the biggest reason UK went from 20 wins to 34 wins and the program's first NCAA Tournament in two short years.

And Johnson will be the biggest reason that, when her career ends in just a few short weeks, the UK softball program will carry on as successful as it has ever been, broken free from the chain of belief that mediocrity and losing is OK.

"Freshman and sophomore year everybody loved to come play Kentucky because they figured they could get a couple of wins," Johnson said. "They always wanted to put us at the end of their schedule."

Who could blame them? Kentucky was the annual doormat to the postseason. Without a single NCAA Tournament berth when Johnson arrived on the scene in 2007, one has to wonder why a player that can throw a softball 80 miles per hour -- harder than the majority of her male counterparts -- hit near .400 and carry a stagnant program out of the annual basement of the Southeastern Conference even bothered to risk her career at a struggling program like Kentucky's.

"I could have gone to schools that had already made a name for themselves, but I was looking a program that I could really help improve," said Johnson, likening her first visit to UK, a trip in which she immediately verbally committed to the school, as love at first site.

Now four years later, Johnson has carried UK to the brink of two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time in school history. Johnson isn't solely responsible for the unbelievable turnaround -- veterans like Smith, Megan Yocke, Meagan Aull, pitchers Chanda Bell, Rachel Riley and more have all had a big hand in turning things around -- but she has carried the biggest load.

Lawson, now in her third year as skipper, secretly calls Johnson "the trailblazer," a nickname all too appropriate for the All-American shortstop. When she arrived her freshman season, she emerged from a team of veterans and pointed out that losing was not OK.

"I don't think the upperclassmen knew anything other than losing," Johnson said. "I think that's where our freshman class really changed it because we had come from winning programs before college and didn't like to lose. No one likes to lose. We weren't going to take losing as an answer."

SBL 09_10 UK_LSU Game3 Web 62.jpgThe program started to gather talent Johnson's sophomore season when Lawson arrived as head coach, but the major leap came last year. Without coincidence, the team made its first trip to the NCAA Tournament behind a .433 batting average, .498 on-base percentage, 53 runs, 81 hits and 34 RBI from Johnson. The runs scored, hits and on-base percentage were all single-season UK records.

"She has an exceptional talent and she's very consistent," Lawson said. "Her output is unbelievable. There's not a day I don't go out to the field that I'm not thoroughly impressed and enjoy watching her play, just from a fan's perspective. I'm going to miss that most. I love softball and to be able to see somebody that's so great and do something that other people can't do on a regular basis, that definitely stands her ahead of everyone else."

Johnson earned an invitation to play with Team USA and was named an All-American after last season, both program firsts. Her numbers have leveled off this year just a bit (if you consider a .375 average, 10 home runs and .671 slugging percentage leveling off) as teams have learned more about her and approached her differently, but UK already finds itself locked in the SEC Tournament, a league tourney the school almost never made, on the shoulders of Johnson's production and leadership.

Lawson called Johnson a smarter player than the one that blazed through the SEC as an underclassman.

"She's more mature in how she handles situations and I think that comes with age and experience," Lawson said. "I think her experience last year in the Southeastern Conference and national tournament, and this summer when she played on the national team with all of those elite players, I think she got to see a different perspective. I think that maturity has helped her become a steady player and have a greater understanding of what her role is.

"She knows the team has to be on her back. She knows if we're going to go anywhere, she has to be one of the main people that lead us there. Her understanding and her ability to deal with that pressure has been an increase in our game this season."

The immediate future for Johnson includes pro ball and wrapping up school. Johnson was drafted in February as the second overall pick by the Tennessee Diamonds of the National Pro Fastpitch League, where she will play this summer before she returns in the fall to finish her degree in kinesiology and help as a volunteer student coach.

UK closes out its regular season this weekend at Ole Miss before heading to the SEC Tournament. After that, the Cats will have to wait patiently to hear word of their NCAA Tournament fate.

Whether or not Kentucky makes it won't have an effect on the legacy Johnson has left on the program. Regardless of the records she has has broken -- many of which may never be broken -- she is, without a doubt, the most important player to put on a Kentucky uniform. Her impact on the budding program will continually to be felt years after she graduates.

"Every program needs someone to change the face of the program," Lawson said.

Johnson has certainly been that player.

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