Johnson leaving lasting impression at Sardis

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Photo: Sardis High senior Caroline Johnson (pictured at center) signed a letter of intent on May 4 to play tennis for the University of Mobile. Pictured with Caroline is her dad Evan and mom Amanda. (Courtesy of Average Joe’s Sports Talk) 

By Shannon J. Allen/Sand Mountain Reporter

Caroline Johnson received her high school diploma, dropping the curtain on her amazing career as a Sardis High School student-athlete.
The valedictorian of the Class of 2023, Caroline was a standout in volleyball, basketball and tennis for the Lady Lions. Last November, she became the school’s first winner on the state level of the Heisman High School Scholarship.
In basketball, Caroline’s performance helped Sardis win back-to-back Etowah County Schools and area tournament championships for the first time. During her junior season, Sardis made its first appearance in the Elite Eight at the Northeast Regional Tournament.
“Around seventh or eighth grade, [the different sports] were all probably equal,” Caroline said. “I used to like basketball probably more, but as I kept playing tennis, I’ve had more fun playing it. It just made more sense to play tennis.”
On May 4, Caroline signed a letter of intent to play tennis for the University of Mobile.
“It was just really special seeing everybody here that su-pported me along the way,” said Caroline. “It made me real emotional.”
Caroline entered the Lions’ starting tennis lineup as a seventh grader and moved to No. 1 singles as a freshman in 2020, a season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic. She is the only tennis player in Sardis history with more than 100 wins in both singles and doubles and finished her career with 112 singles victories and 112 doubles victories. Caroline only lost five regular season singles matches in six years of high school competition (the total excludes tournaments such as section and state).
Caroline finished runner-up in No. 1 singles at the 2023 Class 4A/5A state tournament in Mobile. Following a first-round bye, she defeated St. John Paul II Catholic’s Trish Bukenya, 6-4, 6-4; American Christian’s Ava Thomason, 6-1, 6-3 and Russellville’s Peyton Parrish, 6-2, 6-1 before falling to UMS-Wright’s Sarah Ladd, 6-2, 6-0, in the championship match.
“I thought that Caroline had a tough draw, because the [seedings] were drawn out of a hat,” said Amanda Johnson, who is Caroline’s mother and Sardis head tennis coach. “I thought she had to beat three of the top five players in the state just to get to the finals. Caroline had beaten Sarah in a tournament two years ago, but Sarah has improved a whole lot since then, and I think Caroline’s body had just given out by the second day. Her goal was to win it all, but I told that state runner-up was not a bad way to end her [high school] career.”
Birmingham-Southern was the front runner for the next stop in Caroline’s career until financial difficulties threatened to close the college’s doors.
“I was pretty set on Birmingham-Southern, but then they had that issue, so then I went down to Mobile just to look to have a backup, and I fell in love with it,” she said. “The coach told me I would for sure get to play somewhere in their lineup, so we’ll see when I get down there and play against some of the players.”
Caroline is following in her mom’s footsteps, as Amanda played tennis for the University of Mobile in the 1990s.
“Caroline was just praying for God to give her a clear path,” Amanda said. “We toured the school and she met the coach and liked him and met the team and liked them. She got a peace about it and said that [Mobile] was where she was supposed to be. She loves the Birmingham-Southern coaches, so it was a hard decision.”
Caroline’s father, Dr. Evan Johnson, is a family medicine specialist, and she has chosen to be a pre-med major.
“I know how much time Caroline has put into it and how hard she’s worked,” said Amanda. “She’s prayed a lot about what to do. I think since she’s never focused just on tennis, I think she wants to go and try, at least for a year or two, and see if her game will escalate, and I think it will.”
Caroline said she’ll miss playing for her mother and wearing a Sardis uniform.
“I play with half my cousins and my mom, so it’s just been really close, and it’ll be hard to leave them all,” she said.
Amanda recalled when Caroline was a seventh grader, her private coach in Birmingham said that Caroline had “got it,” and he recommended she devote herself to tennis, including playing weekend tournaments.
“We told Caroline that it was her decision and that we we’re not living through her,” said Amanda. “I asked her to pray about it for two weeks and then we’d talk. She prayed about it and came back and said, ‘I want to play with my teams. I want to play with my friends. I want to enjoy high school.’ And I said that’s what we’ll do. Most kids don’t go on to play professional sports anyway, and you don’t get the memories back.
“Sometimes there’s a bigger purpose than being on one team and just playing that one sport. It’s for them to be a friend and to be a teammate and to share Christ with other girls and to live it out in front of them, and that’s what we’ve always told Caroline. I think she’s impacted each of the sports she’s played in that way, as well. She just loves people and loves her teammates and never complains.”
Amanda said the best part of Caroline’s game is how coachable she is.
“She lacks some footwork because of her feet, so we have to kind of disguise that in some of our things,” Amanda said. “She can’t stay out there for four hours and play a match. For that reason, she’s become a really heavy hitter. She’s got to put the ball away, and we’ve coached her that way, to play points and put [an opponent] away.
“But you have to have a court awareness to do that, and I think that’s what made Caroline good at basketball and at volleyball, too. She knows where that ball is going, and I think that helps her with her weaknesses, whether it’s her speed or anything else. Her court awareness is just amazing.
“She’s very smart, and I think she used her strengths to cover up some of her weaknesses.”
In basketball, Johnson will always be remembered for the step-back 3-pointer she buried from the corner, giving the Lions a 38-35 lead with 16.7 seconds remaining in their 39-38 win over Ramsay in the 2022 Northeast Regional semifinals at Jacksonville State.
“This group of girls had a lot of big moments coming through Sardis, and during basketball season Coach [Heath] Cullom said to start a legacy,” said Caroline. “We’ve been trying to show them how hard we’re working so the younger girls will come up and keep it going for us.”
Chris McCarthy contributed to this article.

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