Emma Johnson was a standout lacrosse player in the midfield during the latter stages of her career at Atholton High School.
But the Laurel resident is now thriving as a freshman defender at Division I James Madison University, where she started the first 14 games for the Dukes this season.
“It is rare,” said Loch Raven High graduate Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe, the JMU head coach since 2007. “I can’t remember the last time I started a freshman defender.”
Johnson has experience on defense from her club days. But that is a long way from the Division I level, where JMU has already faced nationally-ranked North Carolina, Penn State, Virginia and Maryland this season.
“It is pretty hard. I am not going to lie,” Johnson said. “I have adapted pretty well to the group and I think that is the most important thing. It is not just one person [on defense]. It is six other people. In high school I fell into that role [in midfield] because of numbers.”
James Madison was ranked No. 18 in the nation on April 7 when they crushed No. 19 Elon, 14-5, at home in conference play.
On April 9, JMU defeated William & Mary, 11-5, and improved to 9-5 overall and 3-0 in the CAA.
They play Hofstra today and are currently ranked No. 17.
The 5-foot-5 Johnson also played soccer at Atholton and was all-county in lacrosse as a junior and honorable mention as a senior.
“It is pretty exceptional what Emma is doing,” said Klaes-Bawcombe, who grew up in Glen Arm and was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Greater Baltimore chapter of US Lacrosse in 2010. “She is just mature beyond her years and that just transfers over the lacrosse field. She doesn’t overthink things. She is very versatile.”
“She really has a good understanding of the game and what she is trying to do,” Klaes-Bawcombe added. “She is able to play the game and not overthink things. She just doesn’t get rattled. We are rotating from man to zone [defense]. She is one of the two freshmen who is backing up at different spots.”
The Dukes had a difficult non-conference schedule and faced two teams that were ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time: North Carolina and Maryland.
JMU began the season with a 16-14 loss at North Carolina and lost at home March 25 to the Terps, 16-11. The Maryland freshmen class includes Julia Salandra, who is from Woodbine and played at Glenelg High.
Johnson was also recruited by Maryland and offered a partial lacrosse scholarship by both schools. Her stepfather, CR Gillum, graduated from JMU but one of her main reasons for heading south was to be a little further away from home for college.
She had some added motivation against the Terps.
“Just because of the rivalry between the schools and just playing good competition at JMU is what we strive for,” she said.
JMU has 10 residents from Maryland on the team and two other members of the freshmen class are defender Maddie McDaniel of The Severn School and defender Kristen Russell of Sherwood High in Montgomery County.
“Baltimore and Maryland has been a huge asset for us. It is close enough that parents can make it a day trip (for games). You have that ability to be an independent person and be away for college. I think that has been a big selling point for us,” Klaes-Bawcombe said.
Johnson began playing lacrosse at an early age and attended Murray Hill Elementary School and Gorman Crossing Middle School.
“We recruited her as a defender,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “I believe she was a defensive player for her club as well. She played midfield for her high school since they needed that. She wanted to be a defender. She is a very deceptive athlete. Her stick skills are very good, too. She is an all-around player who has been able to step in and have an impact.”