Virginia Beach’s Alani Johnson finds her feet at high-flying Va. Tech
It didn’t take long to realize what school she had committed to.
Towards the end of Alani Johnson‘s club career, though she was still sporting a bright red Richmond Kickers Elite kit, her parents, Errol and Theresa, could be seen on the sideline already donned in the maroon and orange of Virginia Tech.
They were by Alani’s side at every tournament, supporting the Kickers and representing the Hokies, where Johnson would soon play. They made the trek from Virginia Beach to tournaments near and far, watching their daughter excel on the youth soccer scene.
She is now making a similar impact in Blacksburg with a program that has skyrocketed into the NCAA Division I women’s elite.
The Hokies catapulted onto the national scene last season with a surprise run to the Women’s College Cup semifinals, and a sizable dose of freshman talent has helped spark an undefeated start to 2014 that ran to 10-0-0 before last week’s 2-0 loss to No. 20 Notre Dame ended the perfection. Tech rebounded with a 2-0 win over Duke on Sunday, and on Friday they return to the road for another crucial Atlantic Coast Conference matchup at No. 8-ranked North Carolina (4 p.m. ET).
It’s the first of Tech’s six conference games between now and the start of November, also highlighted by clashes with No. 2 Florida State and No. 4 Virginia, their cross-state rivals. The next month might just make or break their national championship hopes.
Entering the season at No. 5, Va. Tech rose all the way to No. 2 in the NSCAA national rankings before last Thursday’s loss knocked them back to a still-lofty No. 5 in the latest NSCAA coaches’ poll. And the quick-footed, clinical Johnson has played a major part.
In high school, both at Bayside High and Cape Henry Collegiate School, Johnson earned First Team All-Tidewater honors, All-Tidewater Player of the Year, First Team All-State and won the Under-18 Virginia State Cup under coach Rob Ukrop‘s Richmond Kickers Elite squad, a team she joined relatively late in her youth career from Beach FC.
And she has transitioned smoothly into the college game at Tech. The Hokies have scored 40 goals and allowed just five, and Johnson has done her part in a supersub role, scoring four goals and three assists – making her the team’s third-leading scorer in just 408 minutes and no starts.
She’s one of the ACC’s highest-scoring freshmen and sits seven goals away from the Tech freshman scoring record.
“We’ve always known Tech and watched Tech football,” Johnson told SoccerWire.com. “I love being here. The atmosphere is so great, the support is so amazing. I’ve learned so much. I feel like I’ve just gotten better being here.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed among the Hokies brain trust.
“She has been able to take chances, [and] create chances that she has been given, which has been real good for her,” said Virginia Tech head coach Charles “Chugger” Adair. “She is extremely dangerous with her athleticism. She is still trying to work on some things, like speed of play. She has got a lot of different tools.
“She can be a forward who plays [with her] back to goal, and a forward who can test the backline. A lot of the times, you get [a striker] that is one or the other. She has got balance of both of those. She is also dangerous around goal. She has a nose for goal. That is what you look for.”
But it hasn’t come without challenges. The leap to the college game from the youth level presents a high hurdle, with degrees of speed and physicality that often wear down fresh-faced newcomers.
“I think that I’ve learned how to be more physical on the ball,” said Johnson, who admitted that it took some time to get used to. “In club [soccer], that wasn’t a challenge for me.”
Her red-hot form in front of goal has come as a bit of a surprise, but she believes scoring the first goal opened the floodgates in a way.
“I think that forwards are always expected to be the goalscorers. Scoring my first goal of the season, it was very exciting,” said Johnson, who struck against Davidson for her first.
“I just want to score as many goals as possible.”
Johnson credits much of her advancement to playing with high-level talent with the Kickers, like South Florida defender Payton Cook and the nation’s No. 1-ranked prep player, Katie Cousins, a Tennessee commit.
“You can learn a lot from being in an environment with good players,” Adair said. “Rob has done a good job with the Kickers.”
Johnson says she won’t allow early success – her team’s or her own – to sway her focus. She’ll stick to what got her here.
“We just take it game by game. But we want to win the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament,” Johnson said. “We enjoy the rankings, obviously. It puts us on the map.
“[But] we like to stay humble and hungry.”
Virginia Tech’s motto is ‘Invent the Future.’ And it’s looking quite fitting for Johnson and the Hokies’ women’s soccer team.