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Senior defender Emma Johnson looks across the field against George Mason on March 3.

JMU lacrosse redshirt senior defender Emma Johnson is, by the stats, one of the best players in program history. Entering this season, she ranked in the top 10 in career ground balls and top five in career caused turnovers. She’s become a staple of the team that’s made every NCAA Tournament, won the 2018 national title and picked up the 500th win in program history during her time in Harrisonburg. 

“It’s such an honor to be on this team that’s made so much history,” Johnson said. “I remind myself every single day when I step on the field that when I get to put the jersey on, it’s so much bigger than myself — it’s playing for the people of the past, present and future.”

On the field, Johnson’s fast and skilled. Head coach Shelley Klaes said Johnson’s talent and calm demeanor made her stand out during the recruitment process.

“She’s always shown this calmness and ability to make really difficult skills look simple,” Klaes said. “She just makes plays look easy, and it was really exciting for us to attract a talent like Emma.”

Johnson grew up just outside of Baltimore. She said it was almost an expectation to play lacrosse due to her geographical location and that she started playing it around five years old in kindergarten.

“I’m from one of the main hotbeds for lacrosse, so we always make the joke, ‘If you didn’t play, you didn’t really fit it,’” Johnson said. “I played other sports throughout my childhood, but I just think the competitiveness of the area I lived in drew me to keep playing.”

Johnson played lacrosse at Atholton High School in Columbia, Maryland, and for the M&D Lacrosse Club. She said playing with and against other elite talent prepared her for collegiate lacrosse.

“At an early age, I was challenged to be the best, and I kind of got a reality check that there are so many good players in the country,” Johnson said. “In order to compete, you got to show up every single day at practice and at games.”

In addition to lacrosse, Johnson also played soccer at Atholton. She said playing soccer helped her with lacrosse by improving her field awareness and her understanding of what was going on around her — all of which made her a better athlete.

Johnson said she first heard about JMU through her stepfather. She added that she was attracted to the CAA’s toughness and JMU’s history of winning.

“I wanted to go to a program that wins championships,” Johnson said. “We’re founded on tradition; we’re founded on the people who worked so hard to build [the] JMU grit, JMU culture.”

Klaes said Johnson made an impression the moment she began playing for the Dukes. Johnson started every game of her freshman season and was named to the CAA All-Rookie team.

“She’s such a student of the game, and she’s able to understand what the systems are,” Klaes said. “She was able to fit into our program right out of the gate.”

Johnson was a starter on the 2018 national championship squad. The Dukes allowed 9.26 goals per contest that season — the best mark in the CAA. Johnson ranked eighth in the CAA in caused turnovers per game and was named Virginia Sports Information Directors Second Team All-State. In the semifinals and finals of the NCAA Tournament, she had five ground balls and two caused turnovers.

Johnson said playing on that team impacted the rest of her career.

“I learned a lot from our senior leaders that year [about] how you can drive a team to see the big picture, see that end goal,” Johnson said. “I think I was able to find my voice within the really dynamic senior class and overall supported the message they were trying to drive throughout the team.”

 In 2019, Johnson had 53 ground balls, which tied for the fourth-best mark in program history. She was named the CAA Defensive Player of the Week for the week of Feb. 26 and to the Second Team All-CAA.

Last year, Johnson had her senior season cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said it still hurts to be at JMU without members of the 2020 senior class.

Johnson returned for the 2021 campaign using the NCAA spring sport eligibility relief. Despite not announcing her return until mid-June, she said that if she didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, part of her was going to regret it years later.

“Some days, it is hard being back here without the 2020 class that I was supposed to end my career with,” Johnson said. “That’s just another added motivation that I had because that class deserved to finish out their season, and to see it get cut away over such an uncontrollable thing breaks my heart every single day.”

Prior to this season, Johnson was named to the Inside Lacrosse Media Division I Preseason All-American Team alongside redshirt junior goalkeeper Molly Dougherty and redshirt sophomore defender Rachel Matey. Johnson and Dougherty were also named to the Tewaaraton Award Watch List, which is given annually to the best male and female collegiate lacrosse player in the country.

Johnson, who Klaes referred to as a “Grandma” on the team, is one of the most experienced players on a young roster that features 16 freshmen or redshirt freshmen — eight of whom are listed as defenders. Matey said Johnson builds a strong relationship with the younger players and gains their trust.

“These freshmen look up to her, and she does a great job of giving straight-up advice to them,” Matey said. “She gives it in the moment rather than after it, so they can learn from it.”

Matey added that Johnson’s presence has benefitted her and made her better, both on and off the field.

“She’s always been a little mentor for me,” Matey said. “It’s not just the physical standpoint of the game — I think she’s really opened my game up to more of the mental aspect of it.”

Despite all the praise she gets, Johnson maintains a team-oriented mindset. She said she hopes to create more history by helping deliver JMU its fourth straight conference championship — something no CAA team’s ever done.

“Our program is set up to make history, and I think it’s OK for us to talk about and put that goal on top of a pedestal,” Johnson said. “I know there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done in order to get to that goal, but to me, that’s something I keep in the back of my head every time I go to practice because I know this team is capable of doing it.”

Contact Joshua Gingrich at gingrihj@dukes.jmu.edu. For more lacrosse coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.