Story and photos
by COREY McMULLEN
Family person, workaholic, mentor and loyal friend.
These are different ways to describe Aztec softball pitching coach Nicki Johnson.
Born and raised in Tucson and a former Aztec herself, Johnson played for the Aztecs in 2003-2005, winning a NJCAA junior college World Series. During the World Series run, the Aztecs took on and beat the University of Arizona Wildcats.
Johnson started playing softball when she was 6 in Bobby Sox, now referred to as Baja.
Around age 10, Johnson joined her first club softball team. Johnson started taking pitching seriously when she was 12 years old. Her coach’s uncle came from California and started coaching her, and that’s when it really started to take off.
“He’s been a real inspiration to me, Coach Mando was definitely a big-time deal to me,” Johnson said.
Starting her freshman year of high school at Salpointe Catholic High School and finishing her sophomore through senior year at Saguaro, Johnson earned herself a full scholarship to PCC.
During Johnson’s freshman year, she went 22-1, earning second team All ACCAC, first team All-Region and was an alternate to the National Junior College team. As a sophomore, Johnson was first team All-ACCAC and All-Region. She led the conference in strikeouts (226), victories (35) and was selected third team NJCAA All-American.
As she finished up at PCC, Johnson was recruited with a scholarship to the University of Memphis.
“We were a first-year program which was kind of different,” Johnson said.
Johnson finished school with a bachelor’s degree of science in education. She minored in sports management and made the Conference USA Academic Honor Roll.
In 2007, after being home for only two weeks, Johnson went to Yavapai College in Prescott. There, she helped coach with a long-time mentor and former Aztecs coach, Stacy Iveson.
For the second time in Johnson’s career, she would be helping build a whole new program. It was Yavapai’s first year with a softball team. Johnson left after coaching there for a year.
“The atmosphere being out there was not my type of place to be,” Johnson said.
After leaving Prescott and coming home to Tucson, Johnson wasn’t working when she got the call from one of her former coaches, Bobby Moreno, who was doing pitching lessons.
“He was doing pitching lessons, and he asked me to take over his lessons. He probably had 10-15 girls he coached,” Johnson said. “So I took over his girls and ended up at Jesse Owens Park, because it was close to my house … that’s when I started doing lessons and took it on as a business for myself.”
Lisa and Mike Reilly have two girls who see Johnson for lessons.
“We found coach Nicki, as the girls refer to her, through word of mouth around our softball league,” Lisa Reilly said.
Each girl that goes to Johnson for pitching lessons gets an hour of one-on-one time to learn under the once Aztec standout and Division One pitcher.
In 2018, Johnson was brought onto the staff by Aztec head coach, Rebekah Quiroz. Johnson has a great relationship with her pitchers, especially with sophomore pitcher Bianca Castillo.
Though their relationship started out a little rough, Castillo blames herself for being too stubborn.
“I just wanted to get better so I went up to her and apologized, and I told her I just want to get better,” Castillo said. “From that day when I apologized, it’s been the best relationship I’ve had with a coach. And it’s a relationship I wouldn’t want with anyone else.”
Castillo signed a scholarship to William Penn University to continue her softball career earlier this year.
“I am very proud of her. It’s a well-deserved honor for her because she has worked so hard to be where she’s at,” Johnson said about Castillo. “She works very hard in the classroom and on the field. She is the type when she wants something bad she will go out and get it whatever it takes. I love that kid to death.”