Johnson, who played at North Mecklenbug, returns as volleyball coach

by Cliff Mehrtens

When North Mecklenburg High volleyball coach Tarrah Johnson gathers her team for some quick instruction or roams during practice drills, it’s hard to tell who is the coach and who is the player.

That’s not a knock on Johnson. The Vikings all know she’s in charge, and they act accordingly.

But Johnson, 22, is only a few years older than her players.

Four years ago, she was a Viking, slamming volleyballs on the same court, walking the same hallways and eating at the same cafeteria.

She doesn’t tower over her new squad. She’s not a screamer. Her youthful looks aren’t much different from the seniors.

But she’s cooking up a pretty good volleyball team in her first coaching position. The Vikings are 4-0 after a 3-0 sweep – 25-9, 25-17, 25-10 – against Gastonia Hunter Huss on Aug. 29.

“The big thing we’re emphasizing here is team unity,” said Johnson, a UNC Wilmington graduate. “They’re really working together as a team. I even had a parent say, `I don’t know what you’ve done with these girls, but they’re working together.’”

Johnson said others have told her that while she may not have the 12 or 13 best-skilled players, they’re an awesome team because they work together.

That makes any coach – new or old – happy.

“Unity is definitely vital,” Johnson said. “If something kind of starts to go astray, it takes one timeout and me to say, `You just need to work together. We’re a team.’ And it’s like a switch goes on. It turns around and everyone is back to normal.”

Johnson also is debuting as an English teacher. On the corridor of her classroom are about five or six teachers she had when she was a student not so long ago.

“It’s crazy but awesome at the same time,” Johnson said. “I really enjoy being back here. It’s cool because they’re helping me as a new teacher.”

Johnson played four seasons at North Mecklenburg under veteran coach Sandi Skidmore, who now is Hough High’s coach. The teacher-versus-student moment will be Tuesday, Sept. 6, when North Mecklenburg travels to Cornelius for an I-MECK 4A conference match at 6 p.m.

Many of the current Vikings played for the well-respected Skidmore on high school and summer teams.  But they like their new coach, too.

“We were a little surprised at first,” said setter Jennifer Hart, referring to Johnson’s age. “But she’s been great. She played here. She lets us figure out what to fix on the court. She’s not the yelling type.”

Added outside hitter Maddie Greer: “(Johnson) teaches a lot. A lot of the drills we do are just like Skid’s (Skidmore).”

Greer and Hart are the standouts on a team that has developed as much from within itself as it has on the court.

“Our heart has been the difference,” Greer said. “We didn’t have as much last year. We just didn’t have that desire you need. This year, if something goes wrong, we don’t fall apart. I think we’ve got a strong foundation.”

That foundation starts with Johnson. She told the players early on that if they didn’t want to work within a team framework, to look elsewhere. The players willingly jumped in.

“These girls have all been committed to this team,” she said. “They’re friends, and they’re working together. I think at first they were thinking, `Oh she’s really young.’”

North Mecklenburg opened the season with a 3-0 sweep against Independence, a 3-0 victory at East Mecklenburg and a thrilling 3-2 win against Myers Park in which it won the last two sets. The fifth set score was 15-13.

“That last set, we probably wouldn’t have won that last season,” Greer said. “We now feed off each other.”

So how does Johnson describe her coaching style?

“I’m not laid back, but I’m not one to be screaming and yelling,” she said. “I know when I played, that wasn’t a good approach. If someone came up to me yelling, I’d just shut down. I can be aggressive, but it’s not an angry aggressive approach.”

That new approach works well, Greer and Hart agreed.

“Last season, there was a lot of frustration and tension,” Greer said. “But our first matches this year have been good warmups. I think we’ve proved we can play.”