As Season 50 Begins, Johnson Continues Nurturing Opportunities Into Lasting Successes

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

April 13, 2022

Kay Johnson’s high school athletic career consisted of a field hockey game, one or two volleyball matches and a basketball game. 

“We would get the gym one night a week, and we’d play something,” she said, recalling her days at Whitmer High School in Toledo, Ohio. “There weren’t a lot of opportunities.”

The introduction to sports was all she needed, however, to form a lifelong passion for athletics. Johnson is starting her 50th season this week as softball coach at Morenci High School in south central Michigan. The school is less than two miles from the Ohio border but has long been on the Michigan map when it comes to sports. 

Much of that credit belongs to Johnson. She’s coached multiple generations of Bulldogs athletes. At one time she coached four sports – basketball, volleyball, track and softball.

“In the winter we would have basketball practice until 5, then the girls would spend the next half hour working on their spring sports,” she said. “I would catch our softball pitchers in the gym and our track athletes would put some work in.”

In the spring of 1976, Johnson coached Morenci to a league championship in softball and the Lower Peninsula Class D track & field championship. 

“We were very successful in the 1970s,” she said. “We got a head start on a lot of people. We had all of our sports going pretty strong those first seven or eight years.”

Johnson arrived at Morenci at about the same time Title IX was becoming law. The legislation protected people of all genders from discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. 

Morenci, she said, got a leg up on other schools in the area when it came to sports. Part of that was the push she gave sports at the school.

“I knew in the eighth grade that I wanted to be a physical education teacher,” she said. “Out of high school I went to Adrian College, and I played everything I could. I played basketball, field hockey and volleyball and played two years on the tennis team. 

“Adrian encouraged women to get involved in sports, so I was fortunate there, too.

“At Morenci, we had a superintendent, Harold Hall, whose daughter was a good athlete, and he wanted her to participate in sports. It didn’t happen overnight because of Title IX, but it developed. We had a lot of girls participate.”

Morenci softballShe didn’t necessarily dream of one day becoming a coach but accepted the role when she got to Morenci.

“I was the physical education teacher,” she said. “It was kind of assumed the PE teacher would be a coach. They sort of just gave me the sports to coach. I was okay with it.”

There were some growing pains with girls athletics. 

“In the winter, our basketball team would have to wait until after wrestling meets to have a practice,” she said. “Some nights our practices were from 9:30 or 9:45 to 10:30. Most of our girls did two or three sports. Finding gym time was a struggle.”

Things that athletes take for granted these days, such as uniforms, were also difficult to come by.

“We wore the same T-shirts for all of our sports the first few years,” she said. “It wasn’t until we pushed for it that every sport had their own uniforms. I don’t think anyone was suing anyone in Morenci back then, but there were little pushes here and there to make things happen. I don’t even remember when the pay for coaches started evening out. Nothing happens without a push.”

Over the years, however, Title IX took hold and athletes from Morenci and all over the state and nation benefited. 

As the seasons grew and things evolved, Johnson eventually stopped coaching varsity track & field, volleyball, and basketball, although she had huge successes in each sport. Johnson was teacher for 23 years and middle school principal for 15. After retiring she went a couple of years without a formal title but covered assorted duties such as middle school volleyball coach, volleyball scorekeeper, filming for boys basketball and football and running concession stands. Soon, she became athletic director, a position she left a few years ago. 

Softball, however, has remained her constant.

“I’m still challenged by it,” she said. “That’s what keeps me coming back.”

The Bulldogs went 19-14 last year and won the 25th District title of Johnson’s tenure. She also has 11 league titles, nine Regional titles and two Class C Finals championships (1985 and 1986) in softball. Her 949 career wins put her firmly in the top 15 among the state’s all-time winningest softball coaches. Technically the 2022 season is No. 49, although she’s been coach for 50. The 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19.

“I still coached all winter to get the girls ready,” she said. “We just didn’t have a season.”

Johnson said she has been happy coaching at Morenci. In 1978, she briefly coached basketball at another Lenawee County school when it appeared Morenci was not going to have high school athletics due to a millage not passing. She was juggling coaching the girls at Morenci and at another school, but when the millage passed and sports were restored at Morenci she gave up the other school.

“I’ve never really looked to go anywhere else,” she said. “I never looked to coach in college. The recruiting never interested me.”

Johnson has 23 athletes in the Morenci softball program this year including some who have not played softball before, meaning she’s teaching the game almost from the bottom up.

“I just have to be patient,” she said. “I enjoy the challenge of seeing where we start to where we end. I’ve never been one to coach to win the first game of the season. I want to win the last.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Morenci softball coach Kay Johnson talks things over with player Rebekah Shoemaker during last season’s Division 4 Regional. (Middle) Johnson confers with the home plate umpire. (Photos by Doug Donnelly.)

Grass Lake Slugger Turner Writing Name All Over MHSAA Record Book

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

May 7, 2024

Bill and Julia Turner have not only put in a lot of miles on the road, but they’ve also put a lot of miles in on the softball field.

Greater DetroitBefore Olivia Turner was hitting the cover off the ball and becoming Michigan’s career RBI leader for the Grass Lake softball team, Bill and Julia were taking her to the field for batting practice.

“I always wanted to go to the field, and my dad would take me and my mom would shag balls in the outfield,” Olivia said. “They’ve spent countless hours, especially traveling around the country. They’ve been my biggest support system. They are awesome.”

Her Warriors teammates are grateful, too. Last week Turner became Michigan’s all-time leader in runs batted in, surpassing Taylor Light & Life Christian’s Kelly Kennedy, who held the record with 304 RBIs from 1991-94.

“It was crazy to think I beat a 30-year-old record,” Turner said. “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. I’m just super thankful.”

Having her name on the state record book for softball is nothing new to Turner. She barely missed the state mark for RBIs in a season last year when she had 102 and is the state’s all-time career doubles leader already.

Grass Lake head coach Roger Cook said Turner never talks about hitting home runs or driving in runs – just about being a teammate.

“I’m going to tell you, she’s one of the most modest people you’ll ever talk to,” Cook said. “She just talks team, team, team. She always has since I’ve known her. She has never said one thing about a home run or a base hit.”

Turner, who plays third base, has been around the Grass Lake program for a long time. When her sister Madeline was playing for the Warriors before heading off to play at Findlay University in Ohio, Olivia would tag along.

“I just wanted to be at the field, be around softball,” she said.

Turner first picked up the game when she was on an 8-and-under team.

“I fell in love with it,” she said.

Turner will graduate this spring with multiple MHSAA records.She started as a pitcher, but quickly converted to infielder, where she has played with Grass Lake and various travel teams. She also plays volleyball and basketball for Grass Lake, but softball is her sport.

“We’re all one family,” she said. “I love that you get to play with girls that you may not be friends with at school. It shows you who you are. Softball gives you a lot of life lessons – dedication, teamwork, how to work with others.”

She loves to hit, too.

“Every at-bat, even if there is no one on base, I want to get on base,” she said. “I’m always going up to the plate doing it for my team, not for myself. The RBIs are pretty cool. My team gets on base for me. All of the girls are phenomenal.”

Cook said he sometimes gets worried that opponents will just pitch around Turner. But because of who is in the lineup in front of and behind her, he doesn’t have to worry about that.

“We have Rylee Fitzpatrick, Emily Brown, then Olivia,” Cook said. “After Olivia we have (junior) Bree Salts, who has committed to Central Michigan. It’s hard to pitch around her. When we get to some of these big games, teams will have to throw to her.”

Last year’s Division 3 runner-up Ottawa Lake Whiteford has faced Grass Lake multiple times over the past couple of seasons, and coach Matt VanBrandt is plenty familiar with the damage Turner can do.

"You'd better have a plan when you are pitching to her,” VanBrandt said. “She’s a dangerous hitter. She’s someone you need to think about before the game starts.”

Turner hit .714 last season with 30 doubles and those 102 runs batted in. For her career, she’s belted 48 home runs and knocked in 309 runs after Saturday’s tournament. She’s never hit below .535 for a season and is nearing 100 career doubles.

Grass Lake currently is 22-1 and leading the Cascades Conference.

“It’s crazy to think I am actually a senior now,” Turner said. “Now that it is my senior year, I just want to work hard and play for my team. We’ve had great seniors the last couple of years. It’s crazy to think this is my last season.”

Turner will attend Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. She chose Bradley because of its nursing program.

“Academics has always been first for me,” she said. “I fell in love with the campus. It’s not too big or too small. The staff there is great.”

Before taking her swing to college, Grass Lake wants to make a deep tournament run this season. And the more games the Warriors play, the more RBIs Turner is likely to add to her record.

“Olivia has one of the smoothest, most beautiful swings I’ve ever seen,” Cook said. “She’s one of the girls you want up there at bat with the game on the line. She can do it all. If you need a single, she’ll get you a single. If you need a walk-off, she can do that, too.”

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Grass Lake’s Olivia Turner focuses on a pitch coming her way. (Middle) Turner will graduate this spring with multiple MHSAA records. (Photos courtesy of Pictures by Marisa and the Grass Lake softball program.)