Kishwaukee volleyball player Mackenzie Johnson felt aches and pains in her back during her freshman season, but she didn’t know that she had a potentially career-ending injury until one pain-filled practice before her sophomore season earlier this year.
Johnson went up for a hit in a routine practice drill when she felt the excruciating pain in her lower back, and when she came down, she keeled over. Johnson tried to get back up, but she couldn’t, so she crawled off the court and sat in the bleachers at the DeKalb gym, where the Cougars practiced during the summer.
“I couldn’t stand up,” Johnson said. “[The trainier at DeKalb] said, ‘Yeah, you definitely need to get that checked out.’ ”
The prognosis of the injury wasn’t good. Doctors told Johnson she had a stress fracture in her lower back, and she probably had it for most of her life. The best way to ease the pain, she was told, was to avoid playing sports, which is a tough decision for any athlete, but even more so for one in Johnson’s position.
The former DeKalb standout had been recruited by Division I schools since she was named Arrowhead Conference MVP during her freshman season, and the Cougars finished third at the NJCAA D-II national volleyball championships
“I was a little upset,” Johnson said. “Last year, I worked really hard to get All-American, and I didn’t get All-American. This year, I came in with the mindset, ‘You’ve got to bust your butt and work harder than you did last year.’ When I found out I had a stress fracture, I was like, ‘Oh, great, I’m not going to be able to accomplish the goals that I want.’ ”
Johnson didn’t give up on her career.
After two weeks, she started easing her way back into practice. She played in some tournaments and conference matches, although on some days she hardly could jump. Some days, she had to sit out of practice, and on most days she wasn’t 100 percent.
“I tried to practice as much as I could,” Johnson said. “But the majority of the year, I didn’t really practice a lot. Sometimes I was a little out of shape, I guess you could say.”
But Johnson still put together a standout season, and the accolades began rolling in as the season wrapped up. First, she was named to the All-Arrowhead Conference team. Later, she was named to the All-Region team after the Cougars qualified for the national championships.
After Kishwaukee finished eighth in the tournament, she was named to the All-National Tournament team. Johnson also was named an NJCAA All-American.
“To get the awards that she got, it shows that when she does have the opportunity to let her body do what it needs to do, she’s that good,” coach Stephanie Gooden said. “It’s remarkably impressive. I think a lot of athletes probably would have given into it and rested on it a lot more than she did.”
Johnson hasn’t decided whether she’ll play next year after receiving offers from Arkansas, Campbell University and Stetson University, among others. Weighing full-ride scholarship offers and her long-term health has been especially tough.
But Gooden, who also coached Johnson during her junior year and senior years at DeKalb, knows Johnson’s career has been well worth it even if it ends prematurely.
“She has made amazing strides,” Gooden said. “She trusts herself, she’s a more aggressive player with control, and she’s a better person overall. She’s someone you want to be friends with, and you want to stay in touch with and you want to be there for her and support her and see good things for her in the future. She’s that kind of player.”