Better Know a Player of the Year: Big Sky’s Emily JohansenTop Stories
As part of a recurring series, D1Softball.com is taking a closer look at some of the returning players who earned conference pitcher or player of the year awards in 2023. This installment visits Portland State super senior first baseman Emily Johansen, the reigning Big Sky Player of the Year.
Emily Johansen may be the best hitter in the Big Sky, but she still has some work to do if she wants to be the best hitter in the Portland State dugout. At least by historical standards, former SEC, NPF and Team USA slugger Kellie Wilkerson sets a high bar for any challengers. Still, as Portland State assistant coach, Wilkerson shares all the wisdom she can with Johansen.
Among Johansen’s favorite aphorisms is the slightly tongue-in-cheek coda that Wilkerson attaches to what amount to graduate-level lessons in the science of hitting.
It’s not that hard, just do it.
“Obviously, it’s so much more than that, but it’s the idea of remove everything and just feel,” Johansen said. “When I’m hitting, my goal is to not be thinking anything—versus instead feeling everything in my body. Because when I think, that’s when I’m not productive.”
There is science to hitting. Our understanding seems to increase by the day. It is quantifiable, any number of advanced metrics available to asses a hitter’s true productivity and value. It is observable, film study and computer programs able to deconstruct a swing and build it back up. But as Wilkerson’s reminder indicates, there is also something ineffable about hitting—something that, if not in the eye of the beholder, is at least in the eye of the one holding the bat.
It’s where science meets art that Johansen is on the most comfortable—and productive—ground. A hitter who ranked alongside special talents like Clemson’s McKenzie Clark and Charlotte’s Bailey Vannoy in analytical measures, including weighted on-base average and weighted runs created plus, is also an artist and film major whose work in that realm is entirely unique. Because all art is unique. Her paintings, photos, videos and more can’t be quantified or measured to within an inch of their life.
They are just, well, her. They are what she feels after removing all the distractions.
Johansen’s younger sister, Clara, is legally blind. Now a student at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon, she loves music and is a gifted piano player. She also experiences something akin to synesthesia, the neurological condition that is “an anomalous blending of the senses in which the stimulation of one modality simultaneously produces sensation in a different modality.” In essence, when she listens to music, she sees lines and shapes in her mind.
An R&B fan, Johansen asked her younger sister to sketch what she saw in her mind while listening to Daniel Caesar’s “Japanese Denim,” favorite song. Johansen then took that sketch, along with the colors her sister described, and let that guide her own drawing.
“We can create something really cool,” Johansen said. “We can merge our creative aspects. Where she lacks something, my brain can make up for it and create something out of what she sees in her head. It was a really bonding moment for us as sisters.”
Johansen has never lacked for ways to express herself—she even played receiver on her middle school football team, shrugging off the double takes that still greet a girl on the football field. But art offered a world of expression all its own. Even in travel ball in and around the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, she would bring a camera with her and craft documentary-style videos of a tournament.
“It was just something, when I was playing, to take my mind off of maybe how I performed the game before,” Johansen said. “Maybe I wasn’t satisfied with how I played, but I’d bring my camera and I’m showing off my teammates having fun and it’s a reminder that it’s not that serious. You have something outside the game to appreciate.”
This past season drew her two passions together closer together than ever before, art a welcome outlet. From the outside, Johansen appeared to have the time of her softball life in 2023. Her career-best 1.072 OPS led all Big Sky hitters. Her sixth-inning double against Oregon State erased a deficit in what turned into a win for the Vikings. She helped spark a postseason run that took Portland State to within a win of the Big Sky title game. Yet it was also a time of stress and challenges, not the least of which when her grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. He had always been her biggest supporter—had always been everyone in the family’s biggest supporter, for that matter. Every game he was able to attend felt to her like a gift.
Her art takes any number of forms. At the beginning of the year, she began to keep a drawing journal—lines and shadings on a page often the easiest way to translate vulnerabilities roiling her mind and difficult to put into words. Other times she’ll set out to draw something for a friend, sketching out a plan beforehand to see if they like it. In photography, on the other hand, she finds a mission. Aware that there are still often fewer photographers for women’s sports than men’s sports, she set out to photograph the university’s women’s basketball games, hoping to make at least a small contribution toward increasing exposure for her peers on the court.
Johansen is five home runs away from matching the program’s career record, 12 RBIs shy of matching that record. Her .330 career batting average is currently the fifth-best mark in the program’s Division I era. She has already secured a legacy on the field, one that she will only add to this season in trying to secure her second NCAA tournament berth. But it’s telling that the legacy that excites her has far more to do with the videos she creates throughout the season.
“I would love to use my abilities to elevate this program and leave a lasting impact that way,” Johansen said. “More social media awareness or just something that will bring more attention to what this program has to offer—because it does have a lot to offer.”
Growing up in the Portland area, Johansen never intended to stay close to home for college. She drew recruiting interest from across the map, and settled on one school as the place for her. They knew her, they appreciated her, she believes, but when it came down to the numbers game in recruiting, they couldn’t offer much in the way of scholarship dollars. A coach with her travel team, the Northwest Bullets, encouraged her to visit her hometown school. She knew it wasn’t what Johansen had in mind, but she told her to at least talk to Portland State head coach Meadow McWhorter. Admittedly skeptical, the high schooler was struck by the warmth of the coaches, the sense of being treated as a person more than an entry in that numbers game.
The next four seasons proved she would have thrived in any of those bigger conferences. They also proved she found the right home—at home. It’s why she is still at Portland State for her fifth year, still ready for road trips to places like Missoula, Montana, and Greeley, Colorado. There is nothing wrong with exploring new opportunities and adventures through the transfer portal. There is also nothing wrong with realizing you don’t need to. Nothing wrong with trusting what you feel about a place.
“If I can make an impact on this school here maybe even lift it up a little bit more, why not stay here when I’m happy and content and surrounded by people that I know support me 100 percent,” Johansen said. “I knew it was an option for me, or it could potentially be an option, but in my head it was never an option. I know that I am happy where I am.”
For her, Portland State proved to be a blank canvas. And whether with a bat, pencil or brush in her hand, Johansen is at her best with a blank canvas.
“Hitting is a very creative thing—like each person has their own swing,” Johansen said. “I think art is very tied in with your identity, and a swing obviously has a lot of identity in it.”
Inside the Numbers …
Johansen narrowly missed out on the top 100 in the nation in walk rate (17.1%). She drew 28 walks and struck out just 12 times in a little more than 160 plate appearances. Over the past two seasons, she has 57 walks and just 29 strikeouts.
All of which would have been surprising news to the player who walked just nine times and struck out 27 times in 2021, her first full season.
How did someone so dramatically alter her plate discipline in such a short period of time? Well, Big Sky pitchers certainly helped, learning quickly that giving Johansen first base was a better bet than letting her swing at something she could drive for extra bases. But Johansen and Wilkerson also worked to remove the stride from Johansen’s swing.
“My head moved a lot when I was stepping and swinging, so I couldn’t see the ball as well,” Johansen said. “When we took that stride out, my head moved so much less and I’m able to see the ball come in much easier. Removal of the stride isn’t for everyone, but for me, I have enough strength already that I don’t necessarily need the power that comes from the step. I would rather be able to see the ball, make good contact and every once and a while hit a home run.”