All in the Family
by Mark M. Sahli
Photography by Friesen Photography
When the four words “all in the family” are spoken, depending on your age, differing things come to mind.
For those older readers, and those growing up in the 1970’s, the CBS television sitcom is probably the first thought that enters the mind.
All in the family in more recent times has taken on new life in the sports world. Athletes continually refer to teammates as family. Many athletes refer to teammates as their brothers, and sisters as well.
The athletes are not the only ones to refer to their teammates as family. Many athletes look to coaches as that family leader, father figure, or mother figure.
When it comes to Pat Johnson of West Fargo and West Fargo girls softball, family is fitting in so many ways. Pat Johnson, you see, is that father figure in his coaching family, coaching in general, as well as in real life outside of coaching.
He is entering his 21st year at the helm coaching the West Fargo girls softball program. The word program is fitting, running like a well oiled machine, or one of the finest computer programs in this fast-paced technological world.
Over the course of the last eighteen years, the state of North Dakota has known no other girls softball champions than those teams coached by Johnson.
He is quick to downplay that streak along with all of the personal achievements, which include being nominated for National Coach of the Year for the 6th time, directing the accolades back to the athletes.
“Without good kids to coach, none of those awards are possible,” he says.
Johnson has played fast pitch softball for nearly 40 years. He played on 12 state title teams and was part of two national title teams. He was inducted into the North Dakota Softball Hall of Fame in 2005 and has accomplished so much in the last 10 years, it would make 25-year career coaches blush.
Getting him back to coaching, he will again direct you from his accomplishments, and with a gleam in his eye, will talk about coaching with his family. This is part of his real family in real life and on the softball diamond. His son Matt Johnson, who also plays and is an assistant, will tell you it is great getting the opportunity to coach with him. “It is a great experience and fun,” he says. “The program is run more like that of a college program than that of a high school level program,” he added.
That may also be in part with some added influence of a more recent college softball player who is another family member. That member is Matt’s wife, Katie Cochran-Johnson, who was a very good player at Arizona State. A four-time All-American and a member of the 2008 Women’s College World Series winning team, Pat will be quick to tell you she was also named to PAC 12 All-Century Team.
A group of athletes taking the softball field in West Fargo speaks highly of their coaching staff and their opportunity to learn from them, and that group is “all in the family” of coaches.
One of those fortunate athletes on this year’s team is Sami Dullum. She will tell you what it is like to play for Pat. “It is so much fun,” she says, with the emphasis on “so” and the facial expressions to go along with it.
Many youth today will give you lukewarm answers like it is all right, or ok. Dullum will not. “He holds you accountable and tries to get the best out of you all the time,” she says.
As a catcher on this year’s team, she noted that she has been playing for eight years including summer U-18 teams. Johnson also coaches with those teams and she says he carries the same type of philosophy and fundamental training for those teams as well.
Johnson’s comments mirror Dullum’s statements, but he adds again, that without the athletes implementing what they learn, the success would not be there.
When you are from West Fargo, and even some of the outlying areas, you know Johnson from the softball fields. Many others will recognize him around the state from yet another sport, which is girls hockey.
Along with his son and daughter-in-law, who help him coach on the softball fields, he has two daughters, Erin and Kacie who also played softball for him. Kacie also played hockey for Pat. Not a bad way to spend time with your father/coach. Again… keeping it all in the family.
Leading the Packers on the rink, Pat was named the Eastern Dakota Conference Coach of the Year in 2008 and North Dakota State Coach of the Year in 2010, the same year that the West Fargo Packers were state champions.
The hockey success, although less in time, does not seem to drop off even if being such a different sport. “All sports are the same in that fundamentals are key, they are just a bit different with each sport,” says Johnson.
He will tell you his favorite sport is “the one that is in season.”
He will not even hint that one sport is more fun or more enjoyable to coach. He grew up playing with the same attitude as he does coaching. The sport that is the most fun is the one he is playing right now.
You might wonder if Johnson specializes in coaching female sports but his coaching does not stop with girls softball and girls hockey. He also assists with boys freshman football in West Fargo.
Cooper Sahli, a freshman this past season had a similar response when asked how it was having Pat as a coach. “He was hard-nosed and tough talking and the guys really liked him as a coach, along with all of the coaches on the team,” he said. Cooper noted that the coaches were like family and all got along really well, which showcases another one of Johnson’s strengths.
In the coaching world, longevity is becoming pretty rare. Johnson is definitely an exception. He has had some interest from larger programs and it might seem very easy to take his family in tow and go to a higher level. He does however enjoy coaching at this age level, and coaching at West Fargo very much, and wants to keep coaching.
With his family of coaches, his family of athletes, and his real life family including wife, Cindy, here in West Fargo along with the fact he is from Harwood and was a Packer growing up, it only seems fitting for him to keep winning and keeping the success “all in the family” of West Fargo athletics. FMSV