Johnson conquers early career injury, seeing hard work pay off

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Rachel Johnson (23) dribbles the ball in Marquette’s matchup against Michigan Sept. 1, 2019.

Three games into her first-year season, Marquette women’s soccer redshirt junior midfielder Rachel Johnson’s life changed. 

“It was really defeating,” Johnson said. “I was getting playing time my freshman year and it was really something that was awesome. I was like, ‘OK, I’m getting my name out there. I’m getting playing time.’” 

After recording a shot on net in MU’s victory over Drake Aug. 25, 2017, the Omaha, Nebraska native would suffer a torn ACL injury that ended her season. 

“It (just) snapped,” Johnson said. “It was something that I’ve never had to deal with. It was really tough for me, like mentally and physically, but with the teammates that I had, coaching staff and athletic training team, they brought me back to where I am now.” 

One of those teammates was senior forward Kylie Sprecher, who knew Johnson prior to coming to Marquette, as both participated in the 2015 U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program Region II.  

“It brought us all closer together because we lived in McCormick which wasn’t necessarily super injured-people friendly so we all worked together to make sure she was comfortable and kind of support her through that process because that’s a really long, hard journey to come back,” Sprecher said. 

Johnson said she learned a sense of appreciation of not knowing when your last game might be, among other things during the recovery process. 

“The recovery process itself taught me a lot about just who I am as a person and how much growth that I had to develop and still do all the time,” Johnson said. “But just knowing how to be vulnerable and asking for help, is something that I learned a lot too.” 

Despite returning to the pitch last season for MU, it wasn’t until the spring 2020 season that Johnson began to feel fully healthy and like herself again. 

It was at the same time Frank Pelaez took over the program as its fourth head coach and began to instill his philosophy for the program. 

“At the very beginning of my first two weeks of practice, I tried to set a standard on how we’re going to practice and she stood out to me,” Pelaez said. 

It is the way Johnson plays the game that left a strong first impression with the longtime MU assistant coach. 

“Her work rate and coachability was so high that I was always drawn to her and what she was doing,” Pelaez said. “I was like, ‘I need this kid on the field because she kind of has everything that I’m asking for from all the players when it comes to being coachable.'”

As she made a strong first impression on her new coach, there was one Pelaez left on her after finding out what he wanted to see out of her and her teammates. 

“He has always said from day one that he wants people that want to be here, want to compete, want to better the culture,” Johnson said. “That has always been rolled in front of my head, like I need to prove something to him and to the rest of the team.” 

While preparing for the upcoming season at home during winter break, Johnson suffered another setback. 

In December, she got COVID-19, which put her back a few weeks.  

Johnson said that despite this, she kept herself motivated by making sure she would be prepared to the best of her ability for training camp in January.

She did so by continuing the workouts sent by the team’s strength and conditioning coach Emily Jacobson. 

“I had no idea who is starting, who’s playing and nor does that even matter. It’s, ‘how much do we want it? How much do we want it to be as a team? How much do we want to fight for each other?,’” Johnson said. “That’s kind of what led a little fire under me.” 

Pelaez said in the time he has been with Johnson, he has seen a form of resiliency which helped her find a way into the starting rotation. 

“The kid is a warrior when it comes on the field and we needed her on the field at all times because she’s kind of a defensive midfielder who covers so much ground and just wreaks havoc against any forwards or attacking midfielders constantly,” Pelaez said. 

Johnson said Pelaez’s emphasis of working on the little things in practice — passing, first touches, shooting — reminded her of the importance of honing your craft in on the basics because it would lead to bigger things. 

She would be rewarded for that work March 18 in the Golden Eagles 3-1 victory over Xavier as the midfielder scored her first collegiate goal. 

“I don’t even remember doing it, I just remember cheering afterwards,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been someone that cares a lot about who gets what goal or what, but it was something that was super exciting for me, as it’s been a long time since I’ve scored in the real game.” 

Sprecher said it has been very fulfilling for her to see everything come into fruition now for her friend and teammate. 

“To go through this entire journey with her and see her where it started, where it wasn’t as great and very unfortunate to now where she’s making such a difference in feeling like her best self. That’s a really cool experience to be able to go along with her,” Sprecher said. 

Sprecher mentioned one strength that Johnson brought to the offensive unit this year was her ability to never give up. 

“She just never gets tired. Frank (Pelaez) describes her as a motor and she’s definitely the motor of our team,” Sprecher said. “So it makes you want to also do that.” 

For Johnson, it was her work ethic in action. 

“Frank likes to call us horses, like, he wants horses on the team who will always fight, always running around, work their ass off to get the ball back, to score goals and that is something I would help kind of emphasize too,” Johnson said. 

Through adversity and challenges, Johnson’s confidence grew on the pitch this season. Pelaez said that was the biggest area of growth he saw from her, as she started all 17 games. 

“She knew she had a role. She knew that she was going to work for her teammates and it was one of these things that I just see her confidence growing and growing,” Pelaez said. “She’s more invested. She’s not a renter. She’s like a homeowner now, and that’s what you want from the whole team.” 

Pelaez said from the outside, people don’t get to see an important trait Johnson has that allows her to be the person she is on and off the pitch. 

“She’s very businesslike, but not in a cold way,” Pelaez said. “She’s got a great tenderness to her on how she talks to people. But then, when you go 1 vs. 1 against her, she is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: She wants to win. She’ll do anything for it and I think that makes her so different because she’s able to turn it on that aggressiveness when it comes to competing.” 

In what was an unprecedented season, Marquette finished 6-4 overall, 4-4 in BIG EAST play and the team placed third in the BIG EAST Midwest Division. 

Though the Golden Eagles came up one game short from ending a two-year postseason absence, Johnson said it was incredible how everyone on the team came together this season. 

“I could just tell from the first couple games, ‘OK we got a whole freaking journey to go through. We are on fire, where is this team coming from? We haven’t done this in the last couple years.’ But yeah, it was unfortunate that we did fall short,” Johnson said. 

After one of Marquette’s games this season, an opposing coach came up to Pelaez and said “Marquette’s back,” according to Johnson. Since then, it has stayed with her as she now goes into preparing for her final season in the blue and gold. 

“Ever since then, I’ve gotten these chills (because) I’ve never had that experience being like a true Marquette winning, tough team,” Johnson said. “The last time that kind of happened was my freshman year, when I wasn’t able to kind of play with the team, so being a part of it this last year and kind of getting it going really excites me for the future.”

This article was written by John Leuzzi. He can be reached at john.leuzzi@marquette.edu or on Twitter @JohnLeuzziMU.