NORTH MUSKEGON – Sam Johnson’s first season of high school soccer last spring as a junior transfer to North Muskegon was certainly memorable.
Johnson scored 16 goals and notched nine assists en route to earning Division 4 second-team all-state honors. The talented forward helped the fourth-ranked Norse capture West Michigan Conference, district and regional championships. They reached the state semifinals and lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to Kalamazoo Christian to finish with a 16-4-1 record.
After years playing high-level travel soccer, which is typically ultra-competitive, Johnson has found a family atmosphere and special connection at North Muskegon, especially with the Norse girls soccer program.
“Gosh, there’s nothing better than high school sports,” North Muskegon coach Caleb Parnin said matter-of-factly.
Johnson is discovering that. The family feel in North Muskegon’s soccer program makes it even better.
For Johnson, a Muskegon Catholic Central transfer now in her senior season, that’s quite literal.
Freshman sister Alex Johnson is playing on the Norse varsity team with her. In North Muskegon’s system, Sam plays the “7” (right wing) and Alex the “8” (midfield), meaning younger sis feeds the ball to big sis.
At times, Sam may get after Alex like an older sibling will. Sometimes, that has its consequences.
“If we have beef at practice, I don’t pass to her,” Alex Johnson admitted, mostly tongue-in-cheek.
Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
The Johnson sisters possess similar mindsets and they know each other’s games inside and out. Those things help on the field. At times, they can get under each other’s skin, which is typical of siblings.
“There’s times where, like, if she makes a bad pass, I’ll get on her a little bit more than I would other teammates … I can get away it because she won’t take it to heart,” said Sam Johnson, daughter of Shawn and Rachel Johnson.
“I can tell there’s times where she gets annoyed. If I ride her too hard, she’ll be like, ‘You don’t get this next pass,’ but that’s OK, that happens.”
All is fair in love and soccer, right?
Sam Johnson and her Division 4 fourth-ranked North Muskegon squad (2-3-1) have gotten off to a bit of a slow start this season, but part of that can be chalked up to a front-loaded schedule. Three of the Norse’s first six opponents are rated in the top four in the state in their respective divisions.
Through the Norse’s first six contests, Johnson has two goals and one assist in the five games in which she played. Younger sister Alex has five goals through that same stretch – not that she’s bragging, aside from maybe at the family dinner table.
Parnin expects things to click offensively for Sam Johnson very soon. He said she possesses a “super-high” IQ for the game and sees the field really well, plus she has a desire to do what it takes for the team.
“She just gets this chip on her shoulder, ‘I’m going to get that ball.’ She does that better than any player I’ve seen,” Parnin said. “She has that next gear where it’s like, ‘I’m going to get that ball.’
“She sees the game well, but she goes and gets that ball. You have kids that can shoot, you have kids that want to pass and stuff, but to do that without the ball is a special player. Her work rate is just so impressive to me.”
Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
North Muskegon junior Kennedi Koekkoek, a teammate and close friend of Johnson, can vouch for the latter part of Parnin’s comment regarding work rate. Koekkoek said that Johnson is fast and really good with or without the ball, “always moving, always waiting for that ball.”
North Muskegon senior Natalie Pannucci, a 2022 first-team all-stater, plays the wing opposite Johnson. According to Parnin, Johnson and Pannucci seem to drive each other in the sense of who can score more – almost like a game within the game. Both of the senior leaders are hyper-competitive, but they’re also supportive of each other.
“It’s really fun to, like, get a different perspective on soccer, especially from her,” Pannucci said. “She’s super competitive, really hard-working, has a good drive and passion, so it’s really fun.”
Johnson honed her skills on the travel circuit against top-notch competition, starting with the West Michigan Storm and more recently playing for Midwest United out of Grand Rapids the last four years.
Johnson appreciates the finer aspects of high school soccer, such as pregame meals, bus trips and close bonds with teammates. She’s come to cherish the relationships developed in the school setting, in playing high school soccer and even outside of those realms.
She can definitely feel a difference.
“I’ve had some bad experiences in travel coaching-wise. It’s super intense and their main focus is, like, winning,” Johnson said. “Obviously, coach Parnin wants to win, but his focus is also on the team aspect with culture and growing relationships with the girls on the team.”
Alex Johnson said: “I think she enjoyed the switch because obviously school sports are different (from travel). At North Muskegon, we rely a lot on being ‘soccer sisters’ so we’re all, like, really close on the team.”
Sam Johnson kept a close eye on North Muskegon’s soccer team two years ago when the Norse rolled to the Division 4 state championship. She was well aware of the program’s strong tradition when she arrived at North Muskegon High School.
Johnson admits to feeling a little pressure upholding that standard, but as Parnin points out, she is the type who applies pressure on herself, too, because she’s always striving for more.
On top of that, she has been playing through a labral hip tear injury suffered near the beginning of last season along with tendinitis in her hip. The injury kept her out of Saturday’s 3-1 loss at Division 3 fourth-ranked Elk Rapids.
Johnson would love to help lead the Norse on another state-title run, but no matter what happens, she’s grateful to be in her present environment.
“It was obviously a lot of pressure coming into it, but the atmosphere for high school soccer exceeded my expectations tremendously,” Johnson said. “How much we focus on culture and building relationships outside of soccer, it’s great.
“It’s nice knowing you go to practice surrounded by your friends, not just teammates.”
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