When she was in seventh grade, Kayla Johnson was at a crossroads in her athletic life. She had spent most of her life as a gymnast, but didn't think she wanted to continue with gymnastics much longer.
“I was watching a college volleyball match on TV,” Johnson said. “I thought to myself 'Hey, this is really cool and I want to try it.' I went to a couple of clinics and people saw potential in me, so I kept going at it.”
Johnson has played on the varsity volleyball team since she was a freshman. Now a junior, she's a pivotal part of the team.
“She's just a phenomenal athlete,” Rockville coach Rich Carter said. “She's got a lot of natural skills, stuff she was born with, and has an unbelievable vertical leap. ... She's able to hit over top of tall blockers, which isn't a talent you see all that often.”
Johnson's vertical reach can get up to 9-feet 8-inches above the ground, which makes her a perfect candidate for the outside hitter position. The Rams have geared their offense towards her this season. Coming in to his first season as varsity coach, Carter knew that would be the case.
“When I first found out I was going to be coaching varsity, my first thing was to sit down with Kayla and talk it out to decide how we were going to work the team this year,” Carter said. “It's great to have an experienced player who plays year round. ... You don't want to waste that talent, and [you] make sure she has as many touches as possible.”
When not playing for Rockville, Johnson is on the Metro American 16 travel team with girls from across the Washington area. In the summer, the team qualified for the USA Volleyball Junior National Championship in Atlanta, Ga.
“This past summer was a great experience,” Johnson said. “It really showed me how much work I have to put it to be on that elite level.”
The Metro American players are mostly from Montgomery County, meaning that Johnson plays against her club teammates during the school year. The team includes Alex Holston, who led Sherwood to the 4A State championship in 2010. Carter feels that while playing with so many good athletes is good for her, it also gets her overlooked a bit in Montgomery County.
“Some people are starting to talk [about Johnson] as they should, which is as one of the best athletes in the county, but I think a lot of the public don't realize how special she is yet,” Carter said. “I think part of it is being from Rockville, and not being known as a top-tier team. Girls at some of the other schools are going to get more exposure.”
While Johnson is thinking about her club season, and farther ahead to playing in college, she knows she has to focus on this school year, on working on her game and on helping the Rams.
“We have to motivate each other to constantly get better and play well as a team. For me personally, I want to get my hitting percentage up. I want to make specific shots and make some smarter plays.”
If the high-flying Johnson is able to help turn the Rams fortunes around, she certainly will get the attention of everyone in the county.
The Rams travel to to face the Cavaliers at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.