Editor's note: This article appears in the February issue of Spurs & Feathers magazine. To subscribe, visit here.
The scene outside Jana Johns’ home in northwest Georgia could have been ripped straight from the screenplay of a Hollywood movie — some cross between “The Natural,” “Field of Dreams” and “A League of Their Own.”
Lit solely by headlights from her mom’s car and whatever stars were out that night, Johns hit softballs into a net as dusk turned to darkness.
“We had a big pasture … and my paw-paw built a backstop and almost a whole field,” Johns said. “We would go out every day, just me and my dad. It was really great.
“I just love the game so much and I remember back just the pure joy of going out there and hitting or fielding or throwing. My siblings were younger than me, but I remember them being out there with me too. It was really cool.”
“Jana has always worked really hard. She’s self-motivated and she’s a perfectionist,” her dad Ian said. “She’s always trying to get better.”
It took mom’s pleas of “Alright, that’s enough” for her to come inside.
That passion — plus a skill set matched by few across the country — led Johns to South Carolina, where she has started all 127 of the team’s games since she arrived on campus. The third baseman has been a staple in the middle of the team’s batting order and will once again be a focal point of the team this season.
On Jan. 21 Gamecock head coach Beverly Smith said she thinks Johns will have a breakout season and a day later the latter was named a Preseason All-SEC honoree.
On Feb. 3 she was named a second-team Preseason All-American by D1Softball and six days later had a walkoff base hit against UNC Greensboro.
“She is just a vacuum at third base,” the coach said. “She’s got a strong arm. I think we’ve turned more double plays since Jana has been in the infield. I think, for her, [improvement will come] on the offensive side. She offers a lot of power. She’s really a true athlete and can do anything.
“I think this can be a breakout season for her in terms of national recognition.”
Last season Johns hit .348 with 50 runs scored, 44 RBI and 26 extra-base hits, including 15 home runs (tied for a program-best in a season). She slugged .708 with a .500 on-base percentage thanks in part to 51 free bases (30 walks). She earned SEC Player of the Week once and ended the season as an All-SEC second-team honoree.
Johns dealt with a right elbow injury and missed most of fall practices but told Spurs & Feathers she’s 100 percent healthy this spring.
She worked this offseason on perfecting her defense — an elite skill she credits to the time spent taking awkward hops in the pasture — and plate discipline.
While Johns’ numbers pale in comparison to the three third basemen who were named National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) first-team All Americans in 2019, her numbers fell just short of LSU’s Amanda Sanchez (.354 avg, nine home runs, 54 RBI), the second-team honoree. Third-team honoree Skylee James of Illinois-Chicago hit .447 with eight home runs and 49 RBI for a team that did not reach the NCAA Tournament.
“I honestly don’t think about or care what other people think,” Johns said. “I just try to focus on taking it day by day and working as hard as I can and just getting better. If the awards come or if people start recognizing me or whatever, that’s great, but I don’t really focus on that.
“I don’t think it’s striving for one award. I think it’s just winning each day or winning each at-bat. Or winning life in general. Getting As in school.
“Whatever I do, I want to do it the best I can.”
Gamecock alumnus Dixie Raley, who overlapped for two seasons with Johns, said the third baseman doesn’t get the level of respect she deserves nationally.
“Seeing how this season goes will be the real test for her,” Raley said. “But she’s an extremely hard worker and has really high expectations of herself and never wants to let her teammates down.”
Ian Johns downplayed the notion his daughter does not get the national respect she deserves and said all that matters is the Gamecocks’ record. “Heck, I would rather her not have any awards and them make it to Oklahoma City,” he said. “That’s what every little girl dreams of.”
“I don’t think she’s underrated. I think she can improve a lot more,” he added. “Hopefully this year she’ll play to her potential and maybe some more people will notice.”
When asked about personal goals, Johns offered a team-oriented answer.
“I just want to go out there and give it my all. And whatever happens, happens,” she said. “I don’t really focus on myself. I just want to do whatever I can to help the team.”
BORN TO PLAY
Talk to anyone about Johns and they mention her athleticism.
For starters, the characteristic comes from Ian, a former South Georgia and Columbus State basketball player, and her mom, Erin Phillips, who played high school softball and basketball.
In middle school Jana played tennis for one season and won a region championship. (She also played soccer for a season in middle school.) As a junior in high school she decided she wanted to compete in track & field and set a pole vault record.
She also played basketball all through high school.
“I love basketball. It’s just completely different from softball, so in-between fall ball in high school and spring travel ball, it just gave me something fun and competitive to do,” Johns said. “Just to keep competing every day, I really liked that.”
But her focus throughout remained on softball, which she began to travel for at 8 years old. “She was pretty good from the time she was 5,” Ian Johns said. “And she’s always enjoyed it.”
Jana hit in the pasture next to her home and also at a hitting facility one of Ian’s friends owned. She played shortstop, first base, outfield and even pitched some in middle school but settled on third base before high school.
“You can’t be scared over there because you play so close to [the action],” Ian Johns said. “She’s always been kind of fearless.”
South Carolina offered Johns her freshman season of high school. She had a visit to Alabama scheduled for a week or two later but decided to cancel it.
Johns has delivered when her team has needed her the most.
In a win-or-go-home NCAA Regional game against Hofstra in 2018 — with South Carolina down a run with two outs in the bottom of the seventh and final inning — she drew a walk to set the table for a dramatic Krystan White walk-off home run.
“I knew it was gone off the bat. I got chills, and then we all just cried at home plate, ” Johns remembers. “That’s honestly the best memory I have so far from my time here.”
The day before, against UNC Greensboro, Johns walked and scored a run in the second inning before, with two outs in the third, dove safely into first base to prolong a two-run frame.
Smith called it, “The difference in the ballgame.”
“It was honestly just an instinct,” Johns said that night. “… I was just trying to do whatever I could do to get on base for my team.”
Earlier in 2018, against then No. 2 Tennessee, Johns gave South Carolina life in what went from a four-run deficit to a comeback victory with a two-out, two-run home run in the sixth.
HIGH SCHOOL HEROICS
Johns’ never-let-up mindset and athleticism dates back to her time at Calhoun (Ga.) High School, where she made plays that led the Chattanooga Times Free Press to describe her as a “human highlight film.”
“I’ve seen her do some wild stuff on the ball field, everything from laying out and catching balls Superman style to Derek Jeter-ing the ball across her body off a slow grounder,” former travel ball and high school teammate Emily Weatherman said. “I think her ability to go [all out] every play is huge.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really seen her half-ass anything. She’s not afraid of anything.”
Added another former teammate, Canaan Burnett, “I remember going to hit in her barn with her dad when we were probably 8. She was always the best hitter. In high school every time I pitched against her I knew she was going to get hits.
“If I could just keep her inside the park then I accomplished something.”
Railey Greeson, who played two seasons of varsity basketball with Johns, called her “someone who possibly will always be the best all-around female athlete in Calhoun history.”
Even Greeson’s own mom told her to “Go Jana Johns on them!” when she wanted her daughter to give 100 percent heart and intensity.
Greeson recalled the time Johns floated in a buzzer-beater to beat rival Ringgold in a region championship game.
“Anytime Jana had the ball in her hands she was doing something crazy athletic that would just make everyone’s jaws drop,” Greeson said. “She’s the most competitive athlete I’ve ever played with or against. I have watched her single handedly not only keep our team in games but pull out a win because she simply will not quit.
“If her feet were on the court, she was in beast mode.”
“I think basketball may have been her best sport, to be honest,” Ian Johns said. “Her and [current Gamecock] Victaria Saxton used to have some good games in high school.”
“We’re friends now, [but] I loved competing against her,” Johns said.
With Johns at the forefront alongside senior teammates Mackenzie Boesel and Kenzi Maguire and pitchers Cayla Drotar and Kelsey Oh, South Carolina has potential to host an NCAA Tournament regional round.
But the Gamecocks have aspirations beyond that.
The stadium in Oklahoma City Ian Johns mentioned little girls dream of playing in, Johns was part of a youth team that won a tournament there. She wants to get back.
“Our team has a lot of depth. I think we’re going to go into the season and just crush it,” she said. “I’m thinking O-K-C all the way.”
Making it there, or even having success there — now that would be a Hollywood script Johns and her teammates would love to write.