The Lewiston native grew up playing three sports and loving whichever athletic season was current. But as her high school career evolved, her love of soccer blossomed. She felt she had a future in the sport, and with that potential came lofty goals.

“I always craved to go up against the best,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be the best that I could possibly be. That went for any sport I was playing. I wasn’t afraid to work on things. I wanted to be better. Division I was the highest level. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Johnson knew what she wanted, she just didn’t know how she was going to do it, or whether it was even realistic to try, but she was going to give it her best effort.

“I don’t know why I felt that way,” Johnson recalled. “I felt like if I wasn’t good enough, I could get myself there.”

With hard work, a little luck and some help from coaches — including Lewiston’s Mike Berticelli —Johnson not only landed a spot with Clemson University’s Division I women’s soccer program, but also earned a starting role with the Tigers. 

“I feel like there’s a connection to soccer and sports for me,” Johnson said. “Every good thing I have is rooted in that in some way. I’m just super grateful. I feel so lucky. For somebody who, at 15, didn’t have any idea where Clemson, South Carolina was, to then be able to play for a successful college soccer team and meet the people that I have and have the friends that I have, I feel really lucky coming from Lewiston, Maine, where I didn’t play for a fancy team.”

Three-sport athlete

Johnson doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t playing sports. She grew up playing whatever she could, eventually gravitating toward soccer, basketball and track.

“I have an older brother (Mark),” Johnson said. “So even when I was too young to play on teams in leagues, I was playing sports in the front yard or in the neighborhood with him.”

She took the games seriously. She still recalls a rec league soccer game that her team lost.

“We lost in penalty kicks and I missed my penalty kick,” Johnson said. “I was so upset. I thought that was going to be the lowest athletic moment of my life.”

There were many more highlights than low points, and ultimately she starred in three sports at Lewiston  High School.

“I loved them all,” Johnson, who graduated in 1994, said. “That’s changed since, but growing up and even in high school, whatever I was playing was my favorite.”

She set her sights high. She wanted to compete with the best, and soccer was her best chance. Lewiston won just three games her senior season, though, and she wasn’t in a sport or a program that was going to earn much attention on its own. But she aimed high.

“I wasn’t scared to not be the best player on the field,” Johnson said. “I trusted that. Even if everyone was better than me, which they were (at Clemson), I still felt like I could do it.”

Earning a Division I spot is a challenge under any circumstances, but for Johnson, in that era and in her situation, it seemed impossible.

“I always felt like I could do it,” she said. “I felt like I could play Division I, even when I probably couldn’t do it. I feel really lucky that I got the chance.”

Helpful hands

Johnson said a “perfect storm” led her to Clemson, a whirlwind of circumstances that included two Clemson coaches willing to give her an opportunity, and a local coaching legend looking after his own.

“My coaches at Clemson, Tracey and Ray Leone, were really established in the soccer world, but were willing to give somebody a chance that wasn’t playing year round,” Johnson said.

Her introduction to Tracey Leone, now coaching at Northeastern, was at a soccer camp at the University of Virginia. Leone was at the camp and coached an all-star team against a squad on which Johnson played. Though not a prolific goal scorer, Johnson hit the net a few times in that outing.

“She kind of noticed me at that camp,” Johnson said. “Then Mike Berticelli put me back in touch with them my senior year in high school.”

Berticelli, a Lewiston alum, was the head coach of the men’s soccer program at Notre Dame. He was known for giving back to his community. Johnson had attended and worked with Berticelli at his summer soccer camps. When it came time for her to seek a place to play in college, Berticelli offered help. He put together a list of programs that he thought would be a good fit.

“He was awesome because he didn’t say, ‘You can’t do Division I,’ or, ‘You should stay close to home,’” Johnson said. “He just gave me a list of a bunch of schools and said, ‘Now it’s up to you, put together film and let me know what you need.’ He got my film in their hands. It wouldn’t have happened without him.”

Up from the bottom

Johnson worked diligently on the training regiment provided to the Clemson players. She knew she likely wasn’t ready to play at the Division I level, but she was going to be as prepared as possible. She aced the fitness challenges, but realized she was at the bottom of the roster.

“It was cool because I looked around and I felt like I could do what they were doing,” Johnson said. “I just needed to practice it. I felt, athletically, I could keep up, but soccer skill-wise, I was behind.”

In one of their first games, Clemson lost to a UNC powerhouse, 7-0. Her stunned parents were at the game and Johnson didn’t play a second. The level of play might have seemed overwhelming, but it didn’t deter her.

“I still felt like I could be that good too,” Johnson said. “I was thinking, ‘I’m not, but I can be.’”

She didn’t play a lot her freshman season. Friends offered her other college choices, suggesting maybe she move closer to home. Johnson wasn’t budging. She was determined to finish what she had started.

“To them it looked like it was an unsuccessful year,” Johnson said. “I would have stayed on that team for four years and not played before I would have said, ‘I can’t do it.’”

Her hard work and her stubbornness eventually paid off. She moved back to a defender position and earned a starting role with the team.

“Things changed when they moved me back to defender,” Johnson said. “That’s when I actually got to start and felt like I was a big part of the team.”

She now says it was the best decision of her life. It was challenging and a little scary to start. She was away from home.  She was trying to play soccer at its highest level in a place she didn’t know and with no friends to start with. The Leone’s pushed her and developed her. Berticelli often sent notes to support her. Her family understood her desire and offered their encouragement.

“I had a great blend of support that pulled out the best in me,” she said.

Coaching legacy

Johnson now sounds and acts like the coaches that impacted her. When she suggested a Thornton Academy freshmen go to Northeastern for a soccer camp with Tracey Leone, that player returned excited.

“She came back and said how much she liked Tracey and she said ‘She coaches a lot like you.’” Johnson said. “It’s actually the reverse. There’s always times I say things and I can hear Tracey. I hear myself using her phrases and her tone of voice.”

After graduating from Clemson, Johnson settled in Monroe, North Carolina, and coached boys’ and girls’ high school soccer at Parkwood High School. She moved back to Maine last year and got a teaching job at Thornton Academy. She was an assistant with the girls’ soccer team and is doing some one-on-one or small group training.

“Coaches have had such a huge impact on me,” Johnson said. “It’s something really important to me. I’ve coached younger kids and then high school age. I’m still learning, but I feel like I’ve evolved as a coach.”

At Parkwood, she would often write notes to her players, either to emphasize their roles in upcoming games or simply to encourage and support. It’s not unlike the kind of encouragement she often received from Berticelli.

“I totally got that from him,” Johnson said. “Mike would always write me letters. He always wrote me notes after I scored or after the season. This was while he was coaching at Notre Dame. After he died, I learned that he did this not just for me but for a lot of players.”

She stresses to players that there’s nothing wrong with being a competitor, a lesson she learned from Craig Jipson, the Edward Little girls’ basketball coach who was an assistant at Lewiston when Johnson played.

“He made me know that it was okay to be competitive,” Johnson said. “That awoke that mentality in me.”

Johnson’s love of soccer continues to grow. So does her desire to teach it and share the lessons she’s learned. The game and its people have impacted her life immensely. Now she seeks to do the same for others.

“They completely changed the course of my life and not just geographically but who I am,” Johnson said. “Many of the good character traits I have have come from my coaches and my teammates. It all kind of stems from soccer.”

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