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October 12, 2009

THROWING HERSELF IN - Julian Johnson's unique talent and perseverance are helping the Hokies to the best season in program history

By: Matt Kovatch

Julian Johnson
“Have you seen the girl with the long throw-in, No. 9?”

It was an innocent question, casually asked by a Virginia Tech fan to a Clemson fan at a women’s soccer match on a perfect September evening. The two were chatting behind the fence near the corner of Tech’s Thompson Field, where the Hokies and Tigers were scoreless in the opening minutes.

Not more than a few seconds after the Tech fan uttered the question, he proved prophetic. A Clemson defender had just kicked the ball out of bounds on the far side in her own half of the field, and No. 9 was trotting over to pick it up.

“Here we go,” he said. “Watch this.”

No. 9 – senior forward Julian Johnson – picked up the ball and gave herself a nearly 10-yard cushion from the boundary. There was an odd silence around the field, mostly because the early autumn air had settled calmly in the Blacksburg area on this room-temperature evening. But maybe it was because the Hokie faithful knew exactly what was coming, and they didn’t want to let the Tigers in on the secret.

Johnson slowly built up speed as she raised the ball above her head and approached the field of play. But the ball, still in her hands, went way past her head, behind her neck and down toward her lower back. Johnson was about to unleash her patented throw-in, quite possibly the most lethal in college soccer.

In the blink of an eye, her double-jointed shoulders and back violently whiplashed the ball forward, and it shot out her hands like a cannon.

“Oh my,” the Clemson fan gasped. “Oh my goodness. That’s amazing.”

The ball hurtled through the air into a sea of bodies right in front of the Clemson goalkeeper. It would have been an impressive toss if it were happening across the street at Lane Stadium, but on the soccer field? This sort of line drive usually came off of somebody’s foot, not from a simple throw-in.

The ball careened through the crowd and onto the foot of teammate Jennifer Harvey, who quickly pushed it past the scrambling goalkeeper for Tech’s first score of the game.

“She almost threw it into the goal!” the Clemson fan proclaimed, all but rubbing his eyes in disbelief. “That’s sick … that’s crazy.”

Johnson has been prompting similar responses from Tech opponents for four years now, and head coach Kelly Cagle estimates that at least 75 percent of Johnson’s school-record 29 career assists – and counting – have come following her throw-in. She was even credited with a goal on one of her throw-ins earlier this season, as a swing-and-miss by one of her teammates distracted the goalie enough to let the ball bounce into the net.

As long as the ball isn’t wet, Johnson estimates that she can throw it up to 30 yards in the air – sometimes farther with the wind – and it’s a skill she’s always had. She said the tosses have gotten longer over time and that she is a lot more accurate with them than she used to be, but opponents still have no idea how to defend it.

“I’ll go to take a throw-in and everybody just turns and runs to the goal,” she joked.

But the effectiveness of the unstoppable weapon is no joke. One of the most dangerous offensive plays in soccer is the corner kick – the team that attempts the most usually has the upper hand and better odds of scoring – but Johnson’s throw-in mimics a corner kick any time she’s within striking distance.

“Oh, it’s worse [for the opponents] than a corner kick,” Cagle stated. “It can cause havoc even when it’s not causing havoc. Teams have pulled all of their players back and will have forwards defending inside the box. That fatigues players. It makes an impact in every game.”

Cagle even recalled one game last year in which the other team, which was winning at the time, was so scared of Johnson’s throw-in that they would literally turn around and kick the ball over their own end line to surrender a corner kick. The Hokies ended up scoring on one of those corners to tie the game and escape with a tie.

There have been many memorable highlights in Johnson’s career, and she and her teammates continue to make them this year during a season that is well on its way to becoming the best in program history. At press time, Tech had put together an unprecedented 10-2 record, including a 4-0 mark in the ACC, following upset wins over No. 16 Virginia and No. 1 North Carolina. But it’s nothing new for the Norfolk, Va., native; she’s been making plays for as long as she can remember. What most don’t know, however, is that her most valuable attribute isn’t her throw-in – it’s her mental toughness and refusal to quit.

Julian Johnson is mobbed by teammate Marika Gray after netting the game-winning goal against Clemson earlier this season.
By the time most athletes reach their senior years of college, they’ve had to deal with at least one injury, and maybe even a surgery. But Johnson has endured a torn quadriceps and three major knee surgeries, the effects of which will likely be felt long after her soccer career is over.

Ironically, most of those injuries are the result of trying to come back too quickly and help her team, something she’s done with every throw-in and every goal scored.

“I can’t say enough about how much I respect her because of her willingness to grow and to fight through these things,” Cagle said. “She’s been open to all of it.”

Johnson’s first injury, an ACL tear, came during an Olympic Development Program (ODP) camp during the summer before her junior year at Granby High School. Schools all across the country were recruiting her at the time, in both soccer and field hockey. Though she made it back healthy enough to scrape through her high school season the following spring, she said she didn’t quite feel ready to return to her ODP team in the summer before her senior year.

“I wasn’t fully in shape yet and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it,” Johnson recalled. “I told [the team] that I thought I should wait, but they said they were sucking wind and that they really needed me, so I went.”

But in the next-to-last game of the tournament, an awkward collision with a defender left Johnson’s other knee – the healthy one – ruined by another torn ACL.

Suddenly, coaches who had been recruiting her started dropping off like flies, unwilling to assume the risk of an 18-year-old with two bum knees, no matter how talented she might be.

But that’s when Cagle – whom Johnson said remained on her radar because she always sent handwritten letters – began to push even harder for Johnson.

“Even though we were taking a little bit of a risk on her coming back from those injuries, we felt like she had far more upside than anyone else,” Cagle said. “It was really a no-brainer in that sense, and we felt like she probably needed a little bit of support because we figured everybody else was probably dropping off.”

“Kelly said, ‘We’re going to stand behind you, just so you know. Our arms are open to you.’” Johnson confirmed. “That’s the main reason why I chose to come here, because of her. She sent me get-well cards, and she’d call me and let me know that she was thinking about me. It really helped because I went into a deep state of depression after the second injury. That little glimmer of light helped a lot.”

Johnson’s throw-in caught everyone by surprise during a relatively healthy freshman season at Tech when she ranked third in the nation with 12 assists. But the injury bug bit again in her sophomore season when a lingering problem with her hip flexor led to a torn quad.

“I’ve learned a lot about the body throughout this whole process,” Johnson said. “I wish I would’ve known a long time ago what I know now because I feel like coming back too early from that first injury kind of set the pattern for muscular imbalances.”

Johnson then soldiered through a complete, but painful, junior season before deciding to see a doctor about persistent discomfort in her left knee. According to Johnson, an exploratory knee scope revealed a partially torn meniscus and two fractures underneath the patella, banishing her to another surgery and life on crutches for six weeks.

She can laugh about it now, but Johnson remembers crying when she heard the news. She didn’t return to action until right before preseason camp late this past summer, and she actually contemplated redshirting this year to get back to full strength. But her recovery went well and once again, the desire to get back and help her team proved too enticing to pass up.

“After realizing that I could play a lot more than I anticipated, I decided that [redshirting] wasn’t a good idea,” Johnson said. “Because of the girls that we have on this team, we feel like we could go pretty far this year. It would have been a waste to sit out when I know I could contribute.”

And contribute Johnson has, albeit with a left knee that the doctors told her is equivalent to that of a 50-year-old’s, helping the Hokies in any way that she can. Though she sports a massive brace on her knee befitting of an offensive lineman’s in football, she’s putting the finishing touches on a career that began as a 4-year-old when her father – a former Jamaican high school national champion who then played soccer at Old Dominion University – introduced her to the game.

“Even with the body she has, she’s done a tremendous job with making an imprint on this program,” Cagle said. “She’s a leader by example and she’s found so many different ways to make an impact. She’s going to leave a legacy here.”

Even that anonymous Clemson fan can attest to that.