July 21, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Karen (Sanchelli) Johns has enjoyed a remarkable career as a student-athlete, college coach, national team coach, and most recently as a high school athletics director. Despite the success for the former Gamecock softball All-American catcher, who is part of the 2015 USC Association of Lettermen Athletics Hall of Fame class, Johns’ fondest memories are not all about accolades, wins and losses or gold medals.
“The best part out of all these experiences were the people and the friendships that I made,” Johns said. “Just having those relationships changes everything about your life. I just cherish those people who I’ve been able to associate with. You make lifelong friends, and that’s the best part. ”
Johns was a four-year letter-winner for the Gamecocks from 1985-1988, earning NFCA first-team All-America honors after her final two seasons and All-Region honors three times. She played for Lou Piel her first two years and for Joyce Compton in her final two seasons. She led the Gamecocks in batting average, base hits and slugging percentage for three-straight years and still ranks in the top 10 in Gamecock history in several categories, including batting average. Once again, however, the best part of her experience has to do with the people.
“All the time I spent with my teammates sticks out the most,” Johns said. “Those four years were some of the best years of my life. We had so much fun. All the time we spent together on the field and off the field was priceless. Now it’s great to see everyone’s children going up. So, my teammates are definitely my favorite memory.”
In addition to her achievements in the Garnet and Black, Johns also excelled for the Red, White and Blue. She won four U.S. Olympic Festival gold medals with the United States National Team, led the team to two International Softball Federation (ISF) World Championships titles, and won gold medals at the Pan Am Games and South Pacific Classic during her international playing career.
Her playing career would overlap with the beginning of her coaching career, and she found success in that role as well. She began her collegiate coaching career at South Carolina, first as a student assistant for the 1989 Women's College World Series team before moving to a graduate assistant role in 1990 while pursuing her master’s degree. She went on to be a full-time assistant at Alabama for five years before landing the head-coaching job at Florida from 2001-05. She was later the head coach for two years at Virginia and also spent time as an assistant at Mississippi State. While she found plenty of success, she admits that the transition from player to coach wasn’t easy.
“Initially you underestimate the change in relationships because you’re young and you think you know it all,” Johns said. “Fortunately, I worked for coaches who put me in my place when I needed to be put in my place. They taught me a lot of things, and that made the transition better. There is so much that you have to do differently and that you have to approach differently. I was very blessed to work with Joyce (Compton) and (Arizona and Team USA Coach) Mike Candrea. I worked around some really good people, and I really progressed because of that.”
“All the time I spent with my teammates sticks out the most. Those four years were some of the best years of my life. We had so much fun.
Johns excelled as an international coach as well, serving as an assistant coach with the U.S. National Team that won two World Cup titles along with the 2008 Olympic Games silver medal in Beijing. She also assisted on gold medal teams in the Canada Cup, Pan Am Games, Japan Cup and ISF World Championships. In 2011 she was the head coach for the U.S. Junior National team and won the gold medal at the Junior World Championships. She later went on to work for the National Fastpitch Coaches Association.
“If you have enough skill, you can win medals,” Johns said. “Being who we are was so important to our program, especially with our junior teams and how we wanted to represent our country. Those are the things that stick with me. We were very blessed with the talent level that we had. Just about everyone we had would be First-Team All-American in college. We won the World Championships, and then that’s when I decided I needed to be home. My daughter (Kaci) was at the age where mom needed to be home a lot more than I had been. She was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, so that’s when I scaled back.”
That didn’t mean she was leaving the athletics world entirely. She now lives in Alabama and is married to former Crimson Tide All-American defensive back Bobby Johns. She was hired as Hewitt-Trussville High School’s athletics director in 2011 and recently became the school’s head coach for softball as well. Johns was known for creating a family atmosphere with the teams she coached, and she gets tremendous satisfaction in seeing her high school students achieve and go to college. Looking back, Johns credits many of her mentors at South Carolina for helping her get to where she is today.
“The people involved - such as Harold White, who was in charge of academics at the time, Coach Piel, Coach Compton, and my professors – were always there for me," Johns said. "You go through so much when you’re going through college as a student-athlete. You want instant gratification, and you want everything to be perfect. So you make a lot of mistakes, but none of those people ever gave up on us. We were always successful because of that. You don’t always appreciate that when you’re going through it.
“South Carolina is just a great place to start your life because people do care,” Johns added. “There’s a lot of diversity that prepares you for the real world, and it’s just a really neat athletic experience. People support each other so well there. All the athletes went to all of the other games. We went to football, volleyball and basketball games. We went to the soccer games. Those are the things I remember the most. Every athlete should have that experience.”
Now that she is being honored in the USC Association of Lettermen Athletics Hall of Fame, Johns holds true to her mantra of deflecting her individual accomplishments and praising those around her.
“I was really happy when I found out about the Hall of Fame,” Johns said. “There are not lot of softball players in there yet, so I was really excited for my teammates and our program to represent them in the Hall of Fame.”
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