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Jeff Kolpack, Published May 01 2010

Whitney Johnson is NDSU’s young ace

When the subject of their daughter, Whitney Johnson, graduating a year early from high school was brought to their attention, parents Bruce and Gail Johnson of Lake Crystal, Minn., had a predictable response: Are you sure?

She would be only 17 years old when she enrolled at North Dakota State after all.

“Our first reaction was we only get to spend this time with her once,” Gail said. “We want to keep it as long as we can. Let’s not rush off to start life because you have the rest of your life to do that.”

But as time went on, the Johnsons warmed to the idea. And today, with the Bison women’s softball season on the line the next two weekends, Whitney Johnson will be front and center as the team’s No. 1 pitcher.

She just turned 18 last month.

“I thought I could help out and I wanted to help this senior class,” she said. “And I think they’re a great group, once in a lifetime to play with.”

Foregoing her senior year at Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial High School was not a decision made overnight. It was a collaborative thought between Johnson, her parents and the NDSU softball coaching staff.

Head coach Darren Mueller said it was discussed almost jokingly during Johnson’s campus visit before her junior season. She verbally committed to the Bison that year over offers from the University of Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

But instead of waiting two years to play at NDSU, she waited only one. It wasn’t warmly received around town, either.

“No, it was kind of hard,” Johnson said. “Very controversial kind of because it’s hard to leave some people. But it was only another semester and I was going to be gone anyways.”

It didn’t help that Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial reached the state softball tournament in 2009 for the first time in program history. Johnson set a Minnesota single season prep record with 435 strikeouts and a single game record of 21.

“It was a tough pill to swallow for everyone,” Gail said. “We made that state tournament run and wouldn’t have it been fun to go through that again. But Whitney had her dreams and goals.”

Gail said her daughter’s maturity and decision making has always been good, or they wouldn’t have allowed it. She was an honor roll student.

Johnson is a 5-foot-11 right hander who had a nasty rise ball Minnesota prep players couldn’t hit. As expected, it’s been different in college.

She faced sixth-ranked Arizona in her second college start, a team that has some of the top hitters in the country. It was a 6-0 loss.

“It was like, ‘Well, I have nothing to lose,’” Johnson said. “That was a powerhouse team.”

She’s 20-16 with a 2.68 earned run average. Mueller said he’s seen a more relaxed pitcher the last couple of weeks.

“Every day is a learning experience for her,” he said. “She’s admitted everything has been a roller coaster like any freshman and that’s been accelerated by her coming in early. She’s a person we look to as the leader on the mound and she’s done a good job filling that role.”

And what does she think of the decision to leave high school early now?

“I love it here,” she said. “Ever since I came on my visit, I’ve loved it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Jeff Kolpack at (701) 241-5546