Saturday, September 22, 2018

Sports

Column: Johnson left a legacy as Eau Claire Memorial girls cross country coach

One of area’s best coaches, known for team concept and smart training, has retired

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    Eau Claire Memorial cross country coach Mark Johnson hugs Aubrey Roberts after she won the D1 girls race at the WIAA State Cross Country Championships on Oct. 31, 2015, in Wisconsin Rapids. Johnson, who coached the Abes to two team state titles including this day, recently retired from teaching and coaching.

    Staff file photo by Marisa Wojcik

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    Mark Johnson encourages his runners prior to the state meet on Oct. 31, 2015 in Wisconsin Rapids.

    Staff file photo

I’ve been in crushed locker rooms after a defeat and around young athletes trying to decompress after scoring a game-winning goal. Every interaction stands out for a different reason.

But nothing tops the 10 awesome words coach Mark Johnson used to describe his feelings on Halloween 2015 in Wisconsin Rapids. 

“... Like a little boy receiving the best birthday present ever,” a rain-soaked Johnson said moments after finding out his Eau Claire Memorial girls cross country team had won its second consecutive state title.

It was so genuine.

And that’s what made that moment so special. He wasn’t saying it as a pat-on-the-back to himself for coaching that golden group. He was that happy that his seven girls running that day got to experience the feat together. 

He was also near tears that the girls who weren’t on varsity came to support the team, because they too had a big part in the season’s success. 

“They were his family,” longtime Memorial boys coach Dennis McGraw said. “It was really impressive how much he cared about those kids. Those kids got 110 percent from him. He walked the walk.”

Johnson, who coached the Old Abes to back-to-back state titles in 2014 and 2015 while leading the program to 10 Big Rivers Conference titles, has retired from teaching and coaching. Angie Rush, a former coach and longtime assistant, will be the head coach for the Old Abes girls this fall.

 Any time I talked to a Memorial runner over the years, they would say ‘Moj’ — what he’s called inside the program — seemingly every other word. Every runner, whether it was a JV athlete or state champion, would be so quick to credit Moj, a man who doesn’t seek it himself.

“He was really all about the athlete,” Rush said.

Johnson, who also was a standout math teacher at Memorial, made sure everyone in the program had a seat at the table. It’s probably a big reason why numbers have at least tripled since his tenure as head coach began in 1999, although he was involved with the program with Rush and Ken Montayne earlier. 

He wrote workouts the same for everyone and would change the intensity levels depending on fitness abilities. Many programs with Memorial’s resume have a separate varsity and JV coach. 

While seven runners toe the line at postseason meets, everybody else on the roster was invited to feel a part of what those participating athletes accomplished. 

Johnson treated it like a domino effect. If the runner who placed near the bottom for the team gave it her all and set a personal best, that effort would trickle all the way up to the No. 1 runner. 

 “They’ve realized they don’t have to be a top runner,” Rush said. “They know they can come in and do their best and they’ll be a contributing member to the team.”

Every kid got Johnson’s best, and there weren’t any better minds in the sport. 

Not a runner by trade — he played high school football at La Farge and was also a sprinter — Johnson devoured training techniques. He attended clinics, watched clips on YouTube, subscribed to newsletters and was open to change. 

Everything was a detailed science to him, and it showed when his teams would peak at the perfect time every fall. A prime example? In 2014, the Old Abes were seeded eighth entering the state tournament and ended up winning it.

Another example occurred last fall, when a squad without as much firepower as past teams kept improving and wound up finishing third at sectionals.

“He’s incredibly thorough, and he’s so knowledgeable,” McGraw said. “He does his homework, not just on running but physical fitness in general. Weight training, core. He was always ahead of the curve.”

Johnson understood just how important it was for a body to rest and recover and wasn’t afraid to pump the breaks on someone he thought needed it. 

They’d always be super personal conversations when he’d float the idea of taking it down a notch to an athlete. He wanted what was best for everyone and wanted them to understand the process. 

And even though he had been doing a long time, Johnson brought new ideas to the table and was open for conversation, never stepping on toes. 

“It seemed like every year he was incorporating some new research and some new idea,” Memorial boys coach Scott Hayden said. “He was never trying to tell me how to coach, but he’d always be open in sharing what those ideas were so I could synthesize it and see if it into my coaching paradigm. But he never put pressure on me, and really he was so supportive while coaching a whole ‘nother team.”

Johnson’s success as a coach reaches far beyond the banners that hang on the walls at Memorial. 

He’s coached runners who have gone on to be doctors, teachers, community leaders and faithful family members.

“If there is anything we do, I think it’s promoting servant leaders,” Johnson once told me.

He’s gone about his business in a quiet manner while coaching outstanding young citizens to an enormous amount of success on the cross country course. 

Johnson has been one of the area’s top coaches in any sport for a long time now. 

It’s only fair he gets the recognition he would never dream of seeking of himself. 


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