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Johnston, laney standing tall


Laney pitcher Madi Johnston (5) is not a prototypical softball pitcher, standing only 5-foot-3. But her 181 strikeouts this season are what opponents notice before her stature. (Photo by Photo by Jeff Janowski)


Madi Johnston knows what you're thinking.

Laney's 5-foot-3 senior has heard it for the past 10 years, ever since she first stepped into the pitchers' circle: This girl is barely tall enough to ride a roller coaster, and she's supposed to strike us out? No way.

Johnston also knows that type of talk stops the moment her first warm­up pitch hits the catcher's mitt.

It's a routine Johnston's repeated plenty of times this season. She's sent a 181-strikeout warning to Laney's playoff opponents: take her and the Buccaneers lightly at your own peril.

For the most part, softball pitchers have to be big to project an imposing presence in the circle. A 6-foot-2 pitcher can make the 60 feet from pitcher's circle to plate look much shorter.

The current U.S. national team pitchers are all 5-foot-10 or taller. Jennie Finch, one of the best softball pitchers in U.S. history, is 6-foot-1 Even other pitchers in southeastern North Carolina are tall: Topsail's Summer Darnell and Ashlyn Regan both stand 5-foot-8.

But Johnston says she's 5-foot-3, and when asked if she's giving herself an extra inch, she sheepishly concedes, "Maybe."

But a smaller stature hasn't affected Johnston, it's made her push harder.

"For people that haven't seen her, I feel sorry for some of them," Laney coach Jim Fisk said. "Because they don't realize the amount of control and the mastery of her pitches. It's a wonderful thing."

Johnston earned that control by working every pitch until she can put it wherever she wants to. She's spent the last few years squeezing every grain of ability and power her body can provide.

"Knowing that I have to step up my game because people underestimate me, it makes me work harder to be sure I can do the job," Johnston said.

And as a senior this season, Johnston's seen the rewards. Those 181 strikeouts have come in only 139 innings. She pitched seven shutouts and allowed only five runs in conference play.

"She's just been us," Fisk said. "She's been the strength on the mound. I'm trying to think of as many adjectives as I can here."

Laney's return to conference supremacy is centered around the off-the-field leadership of Johnston and Laney's other seniors.

The Buccaneers, long the softball power locally, took a step back in 2011. Johnston struggled with injuries while internal fractures dragged down the Buccaneers. The team dropped three games to county rival Ashley, including a bitter third-round playoff loss.

Johnston made sure not to let that happen again. On a team filled with young players, She and her fellow seniors have shouldered the responsibility of both leading on the field and keeping the team focused.

The results indicate they've been successful. Laney ran undefeated through the Mideastern Conference and holds home-field advantage in the playoffs.

And after three years of early postseason exits, Johnston said the Bucs are hoping to advance past the third round and "take it step by step from there." Johnston said that, much like herself, the Buccaneers have much more than meets the eye.

"We're Laney," Johnston said. "We're No. 1 in the conference this year. Each game from here on out everyone's going to say, ‘Oh we need to beat them, they're not as strong as they think they are.' But we're stronger mentally and physically than anyone thinks we are."