In 1975, a fresh-faced farm kid from Kiester, Minnesota, graduated from Mankato State and was lucky enough to get a job teaching high school math in the small town of Shakopee. The position was as a long-term substitute teacher, and it wasn’t until his fourth year that the young teacher shed his “sub” status.
In the spring of 1976, the young man – Neil Johnson – was named head coach when Shakopee started a girls softball program. For the first couple years the Sabers played softball on two fields that now are used for physical education classes. The team then moved to Tahpah Park, where the softball fields had baseball-length fences and men’s slow-pitch players grumbled while waiting for the girls to finish practices and games.
The first steps toward a top-notch softball facility came 17 years ago when a piece of land that had included a gravel pit became the home of the Sabers. Over the years, uncountable amounts of sweat equity shaped the complex into what it is today: three of the most pristine fields any softball team will ever see.
What began when Johnson was hired more than four decades ago culminated in a special event Monday before the Sabers hosted Eagan in a South Suburban Conference game. The facility was named the Neil Johnson Softball Complex, complete with a beautiful archway bearing that title and a plaque affixed to it with the coach’s name, likeness and the words “For all the years of dedication and support of softball in the Shakopee community … We thank you.”
“It’s kind of unbelievable,” Johnson said. “It’s very humbling and it’s an honor. It’s kind of special. There has been a lot of time spent at these fields.”
Johnson, who remains the only head softball coach in Shakopee history, is in his 42nd year coaching the Sabers. He retired from a 39-year career as a math teacher in 2014. Combine those dual careers working with kids and there is no way to account for all the lives he has positively impacted.
During the dedication ceremony, Shakopee athletic director John Janke called Johnson “a people person and a kid magnet. … He was always at school early to help kids with homework. He always had time for them.”
Johnson is the longest-tenured softball coach in Minnesota high school history, and Monday’s game was the 869th of his career. The only softball coach with more career games is New Ulm Cathedral’s Bob Mertz with 877; Mertz is in his 37th season and is currently the co-head coach along with Jamie Portner.
The Sabers have gone to the state tournament in three different decades – the 1970s, 1980s and most recently in 2011 – and Johnson has been in the Minnesota softball coaches association Hall of Fame since 1995. He was inducted into the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2015.
Monday’s dedication ceremony, attended by parents, current and former players and community members, was special. The master of ceremonies was Shakopee resident Dick Jonckowski, longtime public-address announcer for University of Minnesota men’s basketball as well as MSHSL state tournaments.
During the ceremony, heads nodded in approval when school board chairman Scott Swanson described Johnson with the words “honor, integrity and class.”
“Our softball alumni, the people they have become, are a living testament to your leadership and dedication,” Swanson said to Johnson.
When Johnson spoke to the crowd, he thanked current and former players, their parents, boosters, school administrators, the volunteers who helped build and maintain the fields, and “everyone who comes to work in the spring and in the fall to make this the best complex in the conference and one of the best complexes in the metro area.”
The coach grew emotional as he thanked his family. He looked upward while mentioning two siblings who were “here in spirit.” His brother Larry and sister Karen died within five days of each other in late February. Larry retired about a decade ago as the longtime head track and cross-country coach at Edina High School, where he was working when Neil came to Shakopee.
In concluding his remarks, Johnson said, “Parents, I want you to remember these thoughts for your daughter. I mentioned it at our preseason meeting: when the game is over walk up to your daughter and say, ‘I enjoyed watching you play today.’
“For the team, remember what we always say, ‘Remember who we are and what we represent.’ Let’s go play softball.”
And for 42 years and counting, that’s just what they did.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 614
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 10,159
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn