Elma 2020 graduate Kayli Johnson (21) garnered consecutive 1A Evergreen Conference honorable mention selections for the Eagles.

ELMA — One ACL tear is bad enough. Two in the span of six months is almost unthinkable. For Elma’s Kayli Johnson, it was motivation to push herself further than she had ever gone before.

Johnson, a 2020 Elma High School graduate, was on the defensive side during a preseason soccer game for the Eagles early last September when she took a jab at a ball controlled by an opposing player. She stepped wrong, her knee shifted and turned in the opposite direction. There was no pain at first, but she knew immediately something was wrong.

“I had never felt my knee slide like that before,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t even a pop, it was a slide. I just kind of sat down and thought maybe I had hyperextended it or something.”

It was Johnson’s first-ever injury, so she didn’t know what was normal and what wasn’t. She was still able to walk at the time. It just felt weird. She would soon find out she had tore her ACL.

After having it repaired, Johnson returned to action after three to four months of rehab, just in time for basketball season; her best sport. It didn’t last long.

Johnson was able to play the final 13 games of the Eagles’ 20-game regular season schedule. But during the league championship game against rival Montesano on Feb. 7, Johnson jumped up to give one of her teammates a high-five during warmups and felt her knee pop when she landed. 

No way, she thought. Not again.

Johnson went back to the surgery table, this time having her knee completely reconstructed. It was a crushing blow of Johnson and the Eagles, who were primed to make a deep run at state. 

“The second time was way harder, especially mentally, because I already knew what I was going to have to go through,” Johnson said. “It was a lot more painful trying to get back to normal.”

Johnson spent grueling days at physical therapy and sitting at home to aid the healing process. She also traveled with the Eagles as they captured back-to-back district titles and advanced to the 1A state tournament in Yakima for the second-consecutive year.

“I sat and watched and cheered them on but it was hard,” Johnson said.

With one second left on the clock during the Eagles’ season-ending loss to Freeman at state, head coach Lisa Johnson, Kayli’s mother, called timeout and subbed her daughter in one final time. It was a gratifying, if somewhat small, consolation for losing her senior season.

Johnson, a four-year varsity player, finished her career at Elma with back-to-back Evergreen 1A Conference honorable mention selections. She was a two-year starter at point guard and helped the Eagles finish sixth at state as a junior in 2019 while leading the team in assists.

Centralia College women’s head coach Caleb Sells has watched Johnson play summer ball the past five to six years. It was midway through her senior season when he first visited one of her high school games. Johnson had no idea he was there to watch her play that night.

He approached her after the game, said he liked how she played and asked if anyone was recruiting her. He said he would keep in contact if she was interested. It was the first college coach to reach out to her. She officially committed in May.

“I felt a really good connection with the coach,” Johnson said. “Also I watched some of their games and I just liked how he got them to play basketball and I wanted to be a part of that. Their style is very similar to ours at Elma. I think that’s why I was interested in it.”

Johnson is nearly fully recovered now from her second ACL injury. She can walk, jog, run and jump and is only working on building up muscles and leg strength through weight lifting.

She’s now preparing to head to Centralia and join a Trailblazers team that dominated the West Region of the Northwest Athletic Conference this past winter. Centralia finished with a 21-7 record that included a 14-game win streak, a perfect 14-0 league record and a No. 1 seed at the NWAC tourney that was canceled due to COVID-19.

Sells is already looking forward to adding Johnson to his lineup next season.

“She is a coaches’ kid and definitely plays like it,” Sells said. “Kayli reads the floor exceptionally well and is able to anticipate what’s going to happen during a play before it happens. She’s always looking to set up her teammates for a good scoring opportunity.”

It will be a bit of a transition for Johnson, who has played AAU basketball with the same Elma teammates since she was in second grade. They are the only teammates she knows and she’s looking forward to building chemistry with new players.

“One of the things I’m most excited for is meeting my new teammates,” said Johnson, who plans to become an architect or engineer. “I’ve always played with the same group of girls and I’m excited for a new challenge and a higher level of basketball.”

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