When Kerri Johnson became head coach of the Loyola women's lacrosse team last summer after the death of charismatic longtime coach Diane Geppi-Aikens, she received some of her best advice from the college's president, the Rev. Harold Ridley.
Ridley had been in a similar position 10 years earlier when he succeeded another dynamic personality, the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger Jr., as Loyola president. The longest-serving college president in the nation when he died in 1993, Sellinger had served 30 years at Evergreen.
"I told Kerri when you follow people like that, you have to recognize that they are outstanding men and women, but you have to be your own person," Ridley said. "If you keep thinking, 'What would Diane Geppi-Aikens do in that situation?' you won't be successful. You can't let that shadow dominate the way you run your shop."
Johnson, 28, has taken that advice to heart.
"I'm not going to try to be Diane. I can't be and no one can. Even though my philosophies are the same or similar to Diane's, I need to find my own way of directing the team," said Johnson, who has spent the past 10 years in the Loyola program - as an All-America player and then as a coach.
Johnson takes over a team still fresh with memories of Geppi-Aikens' spirited leadership last season as she continued to coach from a wheelchair after the tumor on her brain stem had all but paralyzed her left side.
Drawing national attention for her courage, Geppi-Aikens inspired the Greyhounds to a No. 1 ranking, a 17-2 season and a berth in the NCAA Division I final four before she died on June 29 at age 40.
Reflecting on the past is something Johnson, who has a more reserved personality than Geppi-Aikens, encourages.
"We still talk about Diane," she said. "We talk about how what we experienced last year makes us different from other teams. We talk about different things Diane has instilled in each one of us - a passion for the game, to play with heart, to play with intensity and to have fun doing it."
Withdrawal from the Geppi-Aikens era will be gradual.
The lessons in lacrosse and life that she imparted throughout her coaching career are ingrained in Johnson. They are also ingrained in her team.
"K.J.'s smart, and she's not going to change a lot," said Johns Hopkins coach Janine Tucker, a former Greyhound and close friend of Geppi-Aikens'. "She's going to feed off what's been established.
"But it's important for the players, as well as the fans and the administration, to recognize that K.J. does have her own style. She needs to be given the space to put her mark on that program, although we all know it will have the threads of Diane through it."
Geppi-Aikens groomed Johnson to take over the head-coaching position. As associate head coach the past two years, Johnson stepped in to run the team when Geppi-Aikens was worn down by her battle with cancer. Whenever Geppi-Aikens was able to return, Johnson willingly stepped back.
"Kerri has very little ego," said Joe Boylan, Loyola's athletic director. "When Diane was there, she was in control and there was no question who was running that program. That ability to step in and step out over the last couple of years was extraordinary."
Johnson hopes to continue her mentor's legacy, albeit in her own style, one that will develop over the years. She knows she will be under great scrutiny as the Greyhounds play their home opener on March 7 after a ceremony to rename Curley Field Diane Geppi-Aikens Field. Still, Johnson said she doesn't feel any pressure.
"I guess I'm more prepared for that. It's natural that questions will be asked. Diane gave me a lot of encouragement and support and she said, 'You're ready for this.' "
Suzanne Eyler, a Greyhounds All-American last year and now an assistant coach at Towson, agreed that Johnson is equipped to deal with any adversity that might arise.
"Remember that K.J. has handled adversity not only her whole coaching career but her playing career, too," said Eyler, adding that the first of Geppi-Aikens' recurring brain tumors was diagnosed in 1995.
"I don't think there could be a tough game, a tough week that's going to take K.J. out of her element. She's faced tough times all the years she's been at Loyola."
Of course, with a foundation of veterans, the Greyhounds figure to remain among the nation's elite teams this season. Johnson said they still have a goal to win a national championship after making 10 tournament appearances in 14 years.
Those are high hopes, but that's fine with Johnson.
"I'm not intimidated at all," she said. "Each day, I enjoy being with the team. They're a pleasure to be around and they're always eager to learn. They still have that passion for the game. How lucky am I to have learned so much from Diane and to be in the position I'm in?"
Coming next week
Men's preview: The Sun's 2004 men's college lacrosse preview, including team-by-team breakdowns, polls, schedules and more, will be published next Friday.