After repercussions from a concussion wiped out the last 12 games of her junior season, including Maryland's run to the NCAA women's lacrosse final, she is relishing every minute on the field as the No. 3 Terrapins prepare to host No. 6 Loyola in Saturday's noon NCAA quarterfinal.
"It's so exciting to put an emphasis on the tournament," Johnson said. "It's my last year. These are the games you'll remember, and postseason is just so much fun, the best time. School's over. You're with your teammates. That was definitely hard to miss, and I feel privileged to be able to play in the last go-round."
The Broadneck graduate spent five months off the field after suffering a concussion in a game at Towson on March 29, 2011. This spring, however, it didn't take her long to re-establish herself as one of the nation's best attack players and one of the best on the draw — a two time first-team All-American who, in preseason, had been projected by Lacrosse Magazine as the 2011 National Player of the Year.
"It's so neat to see her pick up where she left off," Maryland coach Cathy Reese said, "The injury she went through was very scary and, you hear a lot of times, could be career ending. It's nice for her to have that ending to her senior year, and she's going to lead this team as far as she can in the playoffs."
The second-leading scorer in Maryland history, Johnson ranks second this season in goals with 51 and third in points with 67. She also leads the team in draw controls with 67 as the Terps aim to return to Stony Brook, N.Y., Memorial Day weekend to try to reclaim the title they lost in last year's final to Northwestern, 8-7, after winning in 2010.
In the title game, the Terps struggled with the two things Johnson does best — finishing and winning draws. Even though she played just half of the 2011 season, she finished fourth among the Terps in scoring and second in draw controls.
The final was tied at 6 with 19:41 to go, but the Wildcats kept Terps playmaker Sarah Mollison under wraps, holding her without a point, as Johnson — who could have steadied an offense that got a little frantic — watched from the sideline.
She could hardly contain herself from running out on the field as the title slipped away. She hated losing, but even more, she missed playing with seniors such as Mollison and Laura Merrifield, some of her closest friends on the team.
Her friends missed her, too.
"We definitely could have used her in the national championship game, but also in every single game," teammate Katie Schwarzmann said. "In times that we struggled, she would have been that extra oomph to put us over the edge."
Johnson, who played for the world champion U.S. under-19 team in 2007, continues to move up on the Terps' career scoring charts. She ranks second in goals with 220 and fourth in points with 277.
Had she not missed those 12 games last season, she almost certainly would be challenging Jen Adams' school record of 267 goals.
As an attacker, Johnson has a well-rounded game, but she stands out for her ability to finish. She can blend into the traffic in the 8-meter arc and still create just enough space for her teammates to get her the ball.
"Karri Ellen is like this silent presence on the field," Duke coach Kerstin Kimel said. "She's not flashy. She's not super duper explosively quick, but before you know it, she's scored three goals.
"She has an incredible nose for the goal and her hands are so unbelievable. You have to cover Karri Ellen's hands. That is the only way, I think, you deter her in her scoring. She has this ability to have people throw the ball in space, and it's in her stick and out of her stick before your kid even has a chance to realize that her player has the ball."
Johnson sat out a couple games this season before the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, but it was nothing serious. Reese wanted to make sure her four-time All-ACC player was healthy and rested for the home stretch.
"They wanted just to rest me, because I had gotten bumped around a little bit and they obviously hold their breath whenever something happens. I knew it wasn't going to be long, so I was just like get some rest which I can appreciate for my old body," Johnson, 21, said with a laugh.
That experience was a lot different from what she went through a year ago.
For someone who had never been injured, sitting out day after day last spring and never knowing when — or if — she might return to the lineup, made it difficult sometimes to maintain her naturally sunny disposition.
"That was the most frustrating thing — constantly being let down," she said. "I thought I'd be back for this game or I thought I would be back for the ACCs, and it was constant disappointment. The only hope I could hold onto was that I was going to get back on the field. I just thought about getting through what I had to deal with right then. My motto was 'One day at a time.' "
Even now, Johnson takes nothing for granted. Her college lacrosse career will end shortly, and she doesn't want to think much past that, except about hopes to travel in Europe this summer and the possible ways she could meet her crush, Tim Tebow. She may try out for the U.S. national team but nothing's definite.
For now, she just wants to play lacrosse.
"I feel like I missed so much last year and my goal was just to be back out here and playing," she said. "I just want to have fun and play with my teammates. I'm trying to cherish this and be in the moment as much as I can."