Toast of the Coast

'I knew we had something special': How Johnson became a force for Aynor softball

Aynor's Layna Johnson hit .451 with 29 RBIs, 10 doubles, two triples and a home run while stealing 10 bases and went 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA on the mound this spring.
Aynor's Layna Johnson hit .451 with 29 RBIs, 10 doubles, two triples and a home run while stealing 10 bases and went 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA on the mound this spring. The Sun News file photo

Tony Mills like to share a particular story about his top player.

Before Layna Johnson was a three-time all-state selection and the Region VI-3A Player of the Year, she a scrawny seventh-grader just cracking into the school’s prominent system. Mills, the Aynor junior varsity coach in 2014 prior to being promoted to the top job, had Johnson at his disposal that year, and after a few games, he elected to give her a chance at shortstop for a game against rival Dillon.

The Wildcats hit “ball after ball after ball” to Johnson, according to Mills, and the young player responded with a perfect outing.

“I knew we had something special that night,” Mills said.

Five-plus years later, everything Mills believed back then has come to fruition with Johnson.

The Sun News' Toast of the Coast Softball Player of the Year led the Blue Jackets to their fifth consecutive district championship and appearance in the Lower State tournament. This spring, she hit .451 with 29 RBIs, 10 doubles, two triples and a home run while stealing 10 bases.

She was also the team’s most effective pitcher, going 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA. She just missed averaging a strikeout for each of her 68 innings pitched.

And here’s the rub for opposing coaches: She’s not done yet.

Johnson, despite four years as a varsity starter and proverbial trophy case full of accolades to show for it, still has a much-anticipated senior season ahead of her.

“I feel like I’ve been there forever,” Johnson said. “I feel like after every season, it’s like I have one more left. After this one, it’s actually true.”

Said Mills: “A lot of places we go, a lot of people we play, they say ‘She’s a senior, right?’”

Some of that misconception of her age can be tied to her success, as well as her relatively early verbal commitment to play college softball at Presbyterian. The Blue Hose’s recent coaching change could put that in flux, and while she said she’s still firm in her commitment until she hears differently from the new coaching staff, other programs have made their sales pitches, as well.

Nothing will be official until November, at the earliest. By then, more 2018 postseason and 2019 preseason honors will likely be bestowed upon her.

All of it - the team and individual success - can be credited back to her own self-awareness. Once told that she wasn’t strong or fast enough to endure high-level softball, she began an intense sport-specific routine that changed all that in a short period of time.

Mills said Johnson is now an imposing force offensively and defensively; when it comes to the latter, she is able to transition between pitcher and shortstop seamlessly.

All the while, she serves as an inspiration to the next crop of Aynor youth who are now in her once-tiny shoes.

“On the field, I’ve seen every play in the book,” Johnson said. “I know every situation. Nothing’s ever a surprise anymore.”

That certainly wasn’t alway the case, even as sure as Mills was that it could happen.

“You can coach a lot of ball and we have a lot of kids come through. You get a special kid every few years,” he said. “Layna’s that kid.”

The team

Player of the Year

Layna Johnson

School | Aynor

Class | Junior

Position | Pitcher/shortstop

Notable | Three-time All-State selection and Region VI-3A Player of the Year batted .451 with 29 RBIs for the region and district champion Blue Jackets. From the rubber, she was 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA while striking out 67 hitters in 68 innings.

Emmalee Ballard

School | North Myrtle Beach

Class | Senior

Position | First base

Notable | First-team All-Region VII-4A selection helped Chiefs to a runner-up finish in the region by hitting .443 with seven doubles and three triples while adding 16 RBIs and 21 runs.

Carly Grace Bodge

School | Myrtle Beach

Class | Senior

Position | Pitcher

Notable | North-South All-Star and Class 4A All-State honoree was 17-5 with a 1.20 ERA and 59 strikeouts. Also batted .313 with 17 RBIs.

Alexis Cox

School | Green Sea Floyds

Class | Sophomore

Position | Outfield

Notable | Helped push Trojans back to the Class A Lower State tournament by hitting .417 with 15 RBIs and committing one just error in the field all season.

Grace Elliott

School | Green Sea Floyds

Class | Sophomore

Position | Shortstop/second base

Notable | Put up a .610 slugging percentage and a .390 batting average with three home runs and 15 RBI for District V-1A champion Trojans.

Kelsey Gollie

School | St. James

Class | Sophomore

Position | Catcher

Notable | Class 4A All-State Region VII-4A selection hit .468 with 14 doubles, five triples and three home runs. Added 36 RBIs, 30 runs and 16 stolen bases.

Neci Hemingway

School | Conway

Class | Senior

Position | Pitcher

Notable | Three-time All-State and five-time All-Region selection headed to the North-South All-Star game after going 8-5 with 109 Ks and hitting .377 with 14 runs and 13 RBIs.

Catie McGovern

School | Carolina Forest

Class | Junior

Position | Pitcher

Notable | Helped Panthers to the Class 5A playoffs by going 10-3 with 50 strikeouts and a 2.25 ERA while also hitting .455 with nine RBIs.

Madison Needle

School | Myrtle Beach

Class | Freshman

Position | Outfield

Notable | Had a team-leading 24 RBIs and added 20 runs while hitting .443 and piling up 15 stolen bases for the region champion Seahawks.

Peyton Rabon

School | Aynor

Class | Freshman

Position | Catcher/third base

Notable | Hit .406 with 11 home runs and 33 RBIs for the region and district champion Blue Jackets. Allowed just one stolen base all season from behind the plate.

Cayce Roberts

School | Myrtle Beach

Class | Junior

Position | Second base

Notable | Batted a team-high .520 with 39 overall hits, 20 runs and 14 RBIs while adding 17 stolen bases. Named to All-Region VII-4A squad.

Maquenzie Schult

School | St. James

Class | Sophomore

Position | Outfield

Notable | All-Region VII-4A selection finished the year with a .500 batting average, seven doubles, 15 runs, nine RBIs and 17 stolen bases.

Coach of the Year

Meredith Jiorle

School | Myrtle Beach

Notable | Led the Seahawks to their first region championship in more than a decade while coaching the team to a 17-6 record and a spot in the Class 4A District championship game.

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