Kellie Johnson was the best you probably never saw

The Butte Civic Center will be the site of the Butte Sports Hall of Fame induction this weekend.

It will be one of the few times — if not the only time — that 2015 inductee Kellie Johnson will receive any recognition at the storied Butte arena.

That’s too bad because Johnson is probably the best Butte athlete most of you never saw play.

Like fellow inductee Deann Johnson, Kellie Johnson comes from an era when females were treated like second-class athletes.

Kellie Johnson, whose nickname “KJ” is a symbol of legendary greatness, played her high school basketball games in the fall and in an elementary school gymnasium.

The 1997 graduate of Butte Central came along before the high schools in Montana were forced — by a lawsuit — to let the girls play basketball in basketball season. She came along before the Maroon Activities Center.

She came along before the days when high school girls’ games sometimes outdraw boys’ games in Southwest Montana.

So while we all have heard tales about how great she was, most never witnessed the greatness of KJ firsthand.

On the hardwood, there is no doubt that KJ is a first-ballot Butte Sports Hall of Famer. She put up some amazing numbers for the Maroons, and numbers like those can’t possibly lie.

Depending on who you ask, she scored between 1,591 and 2,098 points for the Maroons.

Johnson, who is not the most famous athlete in her family because her brother Rob played Major League Baseball, went on to a strong career at Illinois State. She has been the head coach of Air Force Prep School in Colorado Springs, Colorado since 2010

Unfortunately, I am one of the vast majority of sports fans in town who never saw Johnson play basketball. While many didn’t feel like going to an October girls’ basketball game in an elementary gym, I was out of town going to college when KJ played for the Maroons.

I was, however, lucky enough to watch her play softball, and I can without question say that KJ is the most dominant athlete I have ever had the pleasure of seeing play.

If she is only half as good at basketball as she was at softball, then she would still be going into the Hall of Fame this weekend — even if that was the only sport she played.

The first time I saw her play softball was like a scene out of the movie “The Scout” when Al Percolo discovered Steve Nebraska.

It was in May of 1997, and I had just started to work for the local newspaper for the summer. Surprisingly, the Big Boss gave me a great assignment right out of the gate.

He sent me to Stodden Park to cover Butte Central’s softball team in a late-season game. I don’t remember what team the Maroons were playing, but it really doesn’t matter. The story was Kellie Johnson.

When she stepped into the batter’s box I saw a right-handed Mo Vaughn. That was back when the “Hit Dog” was in his prime, so that was a good thing. A very good thing.

On every at bat that day, Johnson hit what would have been a home run had there been a temporary fence up like they have today when Butte High and Central play. Sometimes, as the story goes, she even hit the ball over the fence for the softball field that was at one time set up for the American Legion baseball teams.

On Field No. 1, she would, according to legend, crush the ball over the fence onto the No. 7 fairway of the Highland View Golf Course’s par-3 course. I believe it.

Her bat, though, was only half the story the day I was introduced to KJ. She also pitched a perfect game that day, and she struck out almost every batter with a lightning-fast ball with nasty movement.

That perfect game was one of four straight no-hitters that Johnson tossed while leading the Maroons to the 1997 Class A State championship.

The Montana High School Association has a list of records on its website. If you don’t want to take my word on KJ’s greatness, go look for yourself. Her name is plastered over the Montana record book like she is Babe Ruth before the steroid era rewrote many of baseball’s records.

The name Kellie Johnson shows up 40 times in the record book.

Sure, the record book is incomplete because it is up to individual coaches to submit their player’s stats. Still, KJ dominates that record book so much it is comical.

Sarah Newton had a great career at Polson from 2006 through 2009, and she closed that career with 27 home runs and 110 RBIs.

Those both rank second to KJ, who hit 57 home runs while driving in 189 runs. The home run total would have been much higher if KJ didn’t play her home games in such a big field, too.

Johnson ended with 152 career hits. Missoula Hellgate’s Kristy Hays is second with 125. KJ is also No. 1 with 40 doubles and 15 triples.

Her career batting average of .594 is the only career batting average submitted.

In 1994, KJ batted .619, which is ranked No. 3 in Montana history. Her .596 in 1996 is fourth best, while her .592 in 1997 is sixth and her .588 in 1995 is seventh.

As a pitcher, KJ racked up 44 wins, second only to Billings West’s Jessyka McDonald. She had 48 a decade and a half later.

Nobody has more than KJ’s nine no hitters. Karen Dill of Billings Senior is second with five. That’s how many Johnson threw in her senior season.

Of course, I could go on for days citing KJ’s statistics in softball alone. As far as statistics go, she takes a back seat only to Chase Reynolds, who stared at Drummond before going to the University of Montana and the St. Louis Rams.

One game the running back had six carries and eight touchdowns. I swear that is true.

Not even Reynolds, though, dominated on the football field like KJ did on the softball diamond.

She was the Babe Ruth of Montana softball. The Babe, remember, hit 60 home runs in 1927. No other team in the league had more than 56.

While players caught up with Ruth’s stats eventually, so far many of KJ’s seem safe. Even if some or all of her records eventually fall, thought, there will never be another player like her.

KJ was a true pioneer. She was absolutely incredible.

Friday night at the Civic Center, Johnson and the other 2015 inductees will receive their Butte Sports Hall of Fame Green Jackets.

The next night, they will formally be inducted into the prestigious Hall, where there plaques will forever hang alongside other Butte sports legends.

As KJ’s jacket is slipped on, make sure to stand up and really let her hear it from a hometown crowd that never got the proper chance to fully appreciate her greatness.

Take my word for it, she deserves it.

— Bill Foley writes a column that appears on ButteSports.com on Tuesdays. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. 1 comment

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  • Mark hodges
    June 16, 2015, 12:46 pm

    I was fortunate enough to watch her first hand while officiating and spectating. I have to agree with Bill. Dominating, aggressive and very talented, a true Hall of Famer and a wonderful person. Great article Bill.


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