Matt Calkins: Gender not issue for Skyview soccer coach

Commentary: Matt Calkins

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Jenn Johnson slammed her clipboard to the ground, chucked her pen against the wall, and ripped into her team as though re-enacting "Full Metal Jacket."

Listless and disjointed against rival Mountain View, her Skyview Storm had been reduced to a drizzle -- meaning this halftime speech was not going to end with a group hug.

"Honestly, personally, I was a little scared," said Skyview forward Austin Horner, who vividly recalls the soccer match. "It really kind of makes you have to get it together."

If we are thinking in strict stereotypical terms, this probably isn't the kind of thing you'd expect from a woman coaching a boys varsity team. Johnson guiding her players through yoga poses and pilates? Ehhh...that might be a little closer.

But while Skyview may use yoga mats during practice, it stomps on opponents like doormats during games. And with a Class 4A state semifinal match in Puyallup today, these kids have shown themselves to be men among boys -- thanks, in large part, to a woman's touch.

Of all the boys varsity team sports in Clark County, Skyview soccer is the only one with a female head coach. Sure, you'll see women at the helm of track and field, swimming, golf or tennis programs. But considering their basis in individuality, those sports don't require the same cohesion or simpatico from their athletes.

Soccer, on the other hand, demands a dictator to make 11 players follow the same blueprint. Get one unruly Jenga block, and the whole structure comes crashing down. So when Rob Owskey departed as the Storm's head coach in 2009, Skyview athletic director Jim Condon needed to replace him with a born leader who commands unwavering respect. Johnson, he felt, was the obvious choice.

"To me, it was a natural fit," Condon said. "I've observed her as a teacher before and you can just tell people who have leadership skills and people who are good with kids. She does everything a good coach should do."

While in high school, she did everything a good player should do, too. A standout at Hudson's Bay, Johnson, 27, had the chance to play soccer for Hawaii Pacific University but forwent the student-athlete route and settled for an intramural championship. She began teaching English at Skyview six years ago, and two years after that, Owskey offered her a position as the boys JV coach.

She accepted the gig, her players accepted her, and one season later, she landed the varsity job. The reaction from the community was everything someone in Johnson's situation could hope for: Indifference.

"Nobody really brought my gender up," said Johnson, whose team has finished second in the 4A Greater St. Helen's League in each of the past three seasons. "As far as Skyview goes, I can't say there's a single parent or community member that has made a comment regarding my gender. And for me going into it, that was a probably a concern that, yeah, I'm a female in a generally male-dominated sport in terms of coaching, and to not have any backlash was a pleasant surprise for sure."

Some players worried about how much control Johnson would have. A few disciplinary running sessions later ... that was no longer a concern.

Some players worried about what kind of rapport they would have a coach of a different sex. But considering all the dirt Johnson gathered on her boys from their girlfriends in English class, she had plenty to rib them with.

Storm sophomore Carter Johnson said that Jenn's passion for the game makes it impossible not to play his best for her, but adds that "she cares a lot more about us than a normal guy coach does."

For Skyview players, this is a source of admiration.

For Skyview opponents, however, it's a source of ammunition.

Storm defender Cole Howard said other teams are constantly jibing him about playing for a woman. Johnson herself admitted that she's felt disrespect from the opposing sideline, and her face lit up a like a newlywed when she mentioned that she won that particular match.

The most common remark is that the Storm would be even better if their coach had a Y chromosome.

But considering Skyview is 15-4 and in the state semifinals for the first time in program history, that's like saying Shaq would have been better if he'd put on some weight.

Behind Carter Johnson's three goals, Skyview crushed Roosevelt of Seattle 4-1 in the first round of the state playoffs and pounded Lake Stevens 3-0 in the quarterfinals. The Storm will meet Central Valley of Spokane Valley today to move within one win of the Washington title.

Johnson was reluctant to talk about herself too extensively, saying that she'd prefer the media attention be on the team. At the same time, she has long preached that gender should not hinder aspirations of any kind.

We've all heard at one point that the sky is the limit. As far as Johnson's concerned, it's the only one.

Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or matt.calkins@columbian.com