See more of the story

For Elizabeth Johnson, relief from another weather-related downer came in the form of rigor.

She spent an early-spring Saturday morning as she expected, going through drills with her unit in the Minnesota National Guard Recruit Sustainment Programat the Rosemount Armory.

But Johnson is not just 17-year-old National Guard recruit. She's Farmington senior softball captain, and she had an afternoon appointment: Meet her team for a game at Eagan.

The weather interceded. A deluge caused another postponement. For most of her teammates, that left a hole in the day. Johnson saw an equally attractive option. She stayed at the Armory and went through the rest of the day's drills.

Why not? As a member of the Guard serving part-time, it's how she's chosen to spend at least one weekend a month for the next decade.

"I was really excited to play," she said. "But after I found out it was canceled, I chose to stay at drill and be there."

Whether serving her softball team or her country, Elizabeth Johnson is determined to be there.

Carving her own path

There's scant military history in Johnson's family. Her dream to join the National Guard wasn't nurtured from her youth.

Older brother Rick joined the Guard when he graduated four years ago. His recruiter made an offhand comment to Elizabeth at the time, asking her if she was also going to join. That casual remark to a wide-eyed sibling got Johnson thinking: Was this her calling?

"For the longest time, I've always wanted to help people," she said. "Why not do it?"

She had more than two years of high school left at the time. That was a problem. Johnson wanted to join as soon as possible.

She talked it over with her mother, Tracy Feran, whose response was an emphatic yes.

"We talked about it coming into her junior summer," Feran said. "Her brother had to wait until after his senior year, but the [National Guard] has something called the split option."

The program allows for those 17 and older to enlist after their junior year in high school and split the required training over back-to-back summers, allowing the recruit to return to high school in between.

Farmington softball player Elizabeth Johnson took a swing against Prior Lake.
Farmington softball player Elizabeth Johnson took a swing against Prior Lake.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

So while friends and teammates spent more traditional summers — jobs and club softball and more leisurely pursuits — Johnson left her prep softball team two games into its playoff run and made her way to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for basic training.

"She came to me and said, 'I'll be leaving on this date,' " Farmington coach Paul Harrington said, laughing. "We were still in the playoffs. We lost our next two games, so clearly we needed her."

A willing soldier

For the general population, mention of basic training conjures images of endurance tests, long runs and limit-testing exercises. Necessary? Certainly. Rigorous? Of course. Character-building? Without question. Fun? Well …

"I loved it," Johnson said, barely able to contain her exuberance. "I talked to a lot of people and they told me it was all a mental game. You have to be prepared for it mentally. Of course, they're going to scream at you. But that's their job, to prepare you. They're still human. I think I was more prepared than other people."

"Most people like basic training," said Johnson's mentor, Drill Sgt. Shawna Anderson, a wry smile indicating her sarcasm.

Anderson has witnessed many recruits go through the early stages of their National Guard careers. Most are motivated, eager to get started on another stage of their lives. But even in a scenario in which nearly everyone is looking to make a strong impression, Johnson stood out.

"She joined at 17, and right away she was doing things perfectly," Anderson said. "She works hard, she goes out of her way to help and she's consistently leading other soldiers and making sure they're doing things right. And that leadership is absolutely something we teach and look for. I'm proud to have her in my platoon."

Finding the balance

With a thriving youth softball program, times are good at Farmington. The Tigers won the Class 4A title in 2017 and have had double-digit victories in each season since. Harrington believes his team, 11-7 this season, is on the verge of another state championship next year.

Competition for playing time is fierce. "We've got a good, tough program. It's tough to earn playing time when you've got, like, 18 catchers and 13 pitchers in tryouts," Harrington said.

Johnson has played organized softball since she was 6. She feels passion for softball, but recently that bumped into her growing desire to become a combat medic.

“You have to be prepared for it mentally. Of course, they're going to scream at you. But that's their job, to prepare you. They're still human. I think I was more prepared than other people.”
Elizabeth Johnson

She missed the entire summer of club softball while undergoing basic training, and that's likely showing up this season. She's in a platoon role, a new experience for her, at first base. Playing time must be earned.

But that hasn't dampened her spirits in her final season of high school softball. She's as vocal and as enthusiastic as ever, so much so that Harrington made her a team captain. He saw the same quality in Johnson as did her drill sergeant: She's a natural leader.

"Normally, it's your star players who are captains, but not all stars are good leaders. She is," he said. "She has all the qualities we look for in a captain: She's very vocal, she'll do whatever needs to be done and she's not afraid to speak up and encourage the team to do better. The hardest job a captain has is to get your teammates to get going, but she'll do it. And they respond to her."

Last year, when COVID-19 concerns were front and center, it was forbidden for fans to touch foul balls or balls that went out of play. Players fetched them. Guess who was first out of the dugout for Farmington.

"She was always the one chasing balls," Harrington said. "And doing our scorebook. A lot of kids shy away from that. Not her. She jumps right in."

Her influence in the dugout showed when she told the team she was enlisting in the National Guard. "I think she even got a couple of them to go down to the [recruiting center]," her mother said.

"I almost had a friend join," Johnson said. "Then he changed his mind and joined the Marines."

Even with her future commitment to the Guard — her military advanced individual training will be in Fort Jackson, S.C., this summer — she isn't giving up on softball in her future. Johnson has had contact with a few small college programs. "And they told me they would be fine with my National Guard commitment if I worked hard and kept my grades up," she said.

Johnson knows her long-term future is to serve people as well as country. She's more than ready to start.

"I can't wait," she said. "It's all about helping people. That's what I want to do. That's what I've always wanted to do."