Belmont softball pitcher Maya Johnson wasn’t sure if she’d ever play again when she was a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh.
Diagnosed with lupus in her sophomore year of high school, Johnson carried that weight in her first year of college along with experiencing post viral gastroparesis.
In a constant battle with her health, Johnson remained sick, which was a barrier for her career.
With plans to redshirt, she chose optimism.
Until she received crushing news.
Pittsburgh team doctors told her she would never be cleared to play for the Panthers, and she was faced with a monumental decision of what to do next with her athletic career.
Betting on herself, Johnson entered the transfer portal and settled on pitching for the Bruins in Nashville.
That career-altering decision seems to be working out just fine for the current redshirt freshman.
Debuting at the Troy University Tournament in February, Johnson pitched a complete game, collecting 10 strikeouts.
In five consecutive innings, Johnson retired the final batter with a strikeout.
Starting in Belmont’s first Missouri Valley Conference game on March 18, Johnson collected her 100th career strikeout in the Bruins’ victory over Illinois State University.
That special moment at E.S Rose Park marked one of the many milestones she has achieved in her pitching career.
But Johnson didn’t start out inside the circle.
She always wanted to play softball, but she became bored when she realized not many second graders hit deep balls into the field.
Playing in a recreational league, the Columbia Station, Ohio native was often spotted on videotape picking dandelions and dancing in the outfield.
The switch to pitching came because she wanted more action.
"I told my dad that I wanted to pitch because you got the ball every single play. You're the only person that has the ball for every single pitch of the game when you're out there in the field,” Johnson said.
Originally her parents laughed off the idea, but Johnson slowly fell in love with her new position.
As more action came her way, she became more confident and gave herself one goal.
Pitch in college.
“By sixth grade, I knew that my goal was to play collegiately somewhere. Seventh grade through my junior year, I was just really focusing on that end goal of getting committed somewhere and being able to play collegiately somewhere as a pitcher,” Johnson said.
Johnson has surely found her home with the Bruins and has been a bright spot for a Belmont squad that currently sits at 21-15.
At the beginning of April, she had her signature moment when her team traveled to Evansville, Indiana to face the Purple Aces.
Striking out a program record 22 batters in the duel, Johnson earned MVC Newcomer of the Week honors.
On Tuesday, she tallied up 20 more strikeouts as the Bruins faced the Murray State Racers.
As it stands, Johnson is the only pitcher in the nation with two games of 20 plus strikeouts.
While her performances on the diamond are consistently impressive, her desire to learn more about the game never changes.
“She's an absolute student of the game. I don't know that there are many people I've ever coached who love softball more than she does,” Matthews said. “She studies other pitchers. She's very self-aware of where she's having success and where she's struggling a little bit.”
Johnson is very detail oriented.
Johnson follows opposing teams in the Missouri Valley Conference to gain an extra scouting advantage, she said.
“I definitely follow a lot on Twitter with different teams, pitchers, but more so it's just looking at that game film and studying other teams in our conference. Even if it's a team we’re not playing that weekend, I really like to keep up with the other teams in our conference, seeing which hitters are really hot right now,” Johnson said.
Johnson is a humble superstar, and she often turns to her fellow pitchers, freshman Ellie Giles and junior Emma Summers if she is struggling.
“For example, she's really struggling with a rise ball, she'll pick Ellie's brain because Ellie's got a great rise ball. If she's struggling with her curveball, she tends to go to Emma because Emma is great at that,” Matthews said.
Being a student of the game is something Johnson hangs her hat on.
“I think that's really beneficial because it gives me more tools in my toolbox, because obviously, the more pitches I have working, the more I can throw against a team. I can go up, down and then out if all my pitches are working,” Johnson said. “Just being able to ask the other pitchers on the staff and coach Matthews, hey, do you notice something small? It's a really, really good way to get a quick fix on a pitch if it's not working.”
Johnson’s goal for this season and beyond is clear.
She may be the one who makes consistent headlines, but it’s all about how the team performs and how they can become better every week.
"As long as I'm pitching well, I'm happy because that means I'm helping my team,” Johnson said.
She wants to make sure Belmont becomes a powerhouse in its new conference.
“We’re going week to week and just trying to play what we know to be Belmont softball and showing other teams in the conference that we are here. We're someone to take seriously, so for us, it's just really making a name for ourselves in this new conference," Johnson added.
This article was written by Ty Wellemeyer