In her first week as a teacher in 1971, Mepes Johnson received surprising news. The principal at the school now known as Unity Reed High School had chosen her as the new junior varsity girls basketball coach.
As a physical education teacher, Johnson knew she would oversee a sports team. But basketball? This was not her strong suit. Volleyball and tennis, which she played as a James Madison University underclassman, were more her things. However, Unity Reed did not field those two sports for girls yet.
So basketball it was.
Johnson only learned of her new job after another coach, Karen Poindexter, bought it up as though Johnson knew what Poindexter was talking about while the two walked down a school hallway one day.
Finally, Johnson asked Poindexter why she was talking about it. Poindexter told her the principal had put Johnson’s name next to the opening on a board in the main office. Back then, girls played basketball in the fall and needed a coach to replace Poindexter, who was the new varsity girls coach. That was that. Mystery solved.
Although wading into unfamiliar territory, Johnson relied heavily on advice from her brother Venable, a four-year varsity basketball player at Petersburg High School and St. Andrews University (N.C.). There was no time to waste. Girls basketball was changing from a six-player look where all but two players on each side were stationary to a full-court five-player lineup.
Experience or no experience, she would make it work.
“I had to learn a lot, but I asked questions,” Johnson said. “It was a good time and I kind of rolled with it.”
She did more than roll with it. Without knowing it then, Johnson was on her way toward becoming a coaching fixture at Unity Reed (formerly Stonewall Jackson).
In a career that spans 49 years with only one year off to assist her ailing mother, the 71-year-old Johnson has coached eight sports, including starting one and helping to start another, and countless male and female athletes across three generations at the Manassas area school. No head coach in Prince William County history has ever coached as long and at one school.
Think about it: When Johnson began teaching, there were only five county high schools. Now there are 12, with the 13th opening this fall. When she began teaching, Unity Reed still held classes in the current Unity Braxton Middle School building before moving to its present site starting in the 1972-73 school year.
Johnson’s longevity is remarkable in any era, but even more so now with the high school head coaching turnover rate higher than ever. From financial reasons and family commitments to dealing with added teaching responsibilities, over-involved parents and the push for college scholarships, coaches rarely stay in the same position more than 10 years – let alone at the same school.
Johnson is the rare exception. Even though she’s had opportunities to call it quits and do something else with her time, especially after she retired from teaching in 2006, Johnson can’t see herself doing anything else.
One kid, 30 kids. Highly skilled or just starting out. A high-profile sport or a lesser known one. It doesn’t matter. She’s there for anyone with a desire to learn.
“It’s her calling,” said Tyler Neemann, who played No. 1 singles for Johnson on Unity Reed’s tennis team from 1998-2001. “I see her doing this as long as she’s physically able. People don’t run away from their calling and I don’t think she would.”
A WAY OF LIFE
Johnson was miserable.
While student-teaching at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Johnson wondered whether she’d stay in this profession for long. Constant criticism from her supervisor left her an emotional wreck to the point she stopped eating breakfast and lunch. The stress was too much.
If this was a typical teaching experience, Johnson wanted to give it a year and then move on. It wasn’t worth the trouble.
But when she arrived at United Reed in the fall of 1971, Johnson began to reconsider that plan. She accepted the job over one in Frederick County (Md.) after Prince William school recruiters came to JMU seeking prospective teachers. Johnson accepted the offer because she liked the school system and it was closer to her home in Petersburg.
Unshackled from the intense scrutiny she experienced at Marshall, Johnson felt comfortable at Unity Reed and soon found her footing as a teacher and coach.
In addition to coaching girls basketball her first year at Unity Reed, she also started the school’s first female track team in the spring of 1972 when the girls asked her to coach it. In their first year competing in the fifth annual Prince William County Girls Track Invitational against the county’s other four schools (Gar-Field, Woodbridge, Osbourn and Brentsville), the Lions won the title.
In 1978, she became Unity Reed’s freshman volleyball coach when Prince William high schools fielded the sport for the first time. The following season, she became the varsity volleyball coach.
Along the way, Johnson led the boys and girls swim teams for six years. She directed the girls varsity basketball team before coming back to serve as Yvette Baggett’s assistant for three more years. She also spent seven years as the junior varsity girls soccer coach. Johnson was so busy she was eventually coaching a sport each of the three seasons (volleyball, basketball and track).
Since 1990, she has coached the girls tennis team. Four years later, she added the boys team. In 2011, she agreed to coach the golf team after the sport took a hiatus at the school.
Johnson said there were times where she thought about moving on to another school. She even considered teaching in college.
But each time she chose to stay at Unity Reed for a variety of reasons.
Some of it was for financial purposes. She risked losing some of her built-up retirement years if another school district refused to accept them.
Some of it was reality. Each school had its own set of issues.
Some of it was familiarity. After a certain time, Johnson became settled as one school year ran into another.
And in the case of college, she had no interest in meeting publishing requirements.
But the biggest draw in staying was being a difference maker. Johnson does not have any children of her own. So other people’s kids became Johnson’s kids.
The more involved Johnson became, the more she wanted to contribute. And her athletes responded in kind by working as hard as they could for her.
“She’s my hero,” said Ines Harris, a 1978 Stonewall Jackson graduate who ran track for Johnson. “She’s an icon.”
Johnson didn’t coach for the money. No one in high school does. In fact, she coached track for free her first three years before receiving a $100 stipend her fourth year. That was a big deal for someone who made just over $8,000 a year teaching. Stipends today still go only so far. The county pays golf coaches $2,344 this school year and tennis coaches $3,076.
Mepes Johnson has coached Unity Reed's girls tennis team since 1990 and the boys tennis team since 1994.
The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t prevent her from coming back either. For one, golf and tennis were ideal sports to play outside because they lend themselves to social distancing. Plus, Johnson continued to feel the nudge. If there was interest in a sport, she was available to meet the need.
“I think teaching is in my blood and so being a coach is part of that,” Johnson said. “It also gives me a sense of purpose.”
Johnson has enjoyed success.
In 1979 as the school’s first-year varsity volleyball coach, Johnson led the Lions to the region title by upsetting unbeaten Gar-Field in the final.
In 1999, she took the boys tennis team to its first state tournament. In 2010, Jimmy Davis reached the Group AAA individual boys tennis final before going on to play at Longwood and George Mason. He’s now GMU’s head men’s tennis coach.
Mepes Johnson coached both Unity Reed's junior varsity and varsity girls basketball teams.
But as much as she likes to win, Johnson never stayed in coaching strictly for banners and titles or to seek a better job with a better talent base. That’s not her source of motivation. Not in 1971. Not now. Not ever.
“She’s an old-school coach,” activities director Kevin Turner said. “She truly wants to develop a brand new kid and see them turn into something special.”
Even in the lean years where athletes transfer out, demographics change and new schools open, she keeps a positive attitude highlighted by patience and a hearty laugh that keeps things light. She’s no pushover, mind you. Johnson knows when to hold her ground. But she does so by never screaming.
“I am not much of a yeller,” Johnson said. “I usually try to tell them something positive they are doing and then say, ‘Here’s what we need to work on.’ Matter of fact, one time the girls’ tennis team used to train next to the football team and they stopped playing and froze [when they heard the football coach yell]. I told them, ‘Ladies, he’s not yelling at you. Keep going.’”
She’s also open to new challenges.
Johnson decided to coach the golf team after Turner told her that a talented freshman named Chad McCann was enrolling at Unity Reed.
McCann was indeed the real deal. He won the district title as a freshman and advanced to states as a sophomore. But he left for Battlefield his junior season to be closer to Piedmont Country Club in Haymarket, where he played, as well as the chance to compete for a team state title.
“I understood,” Johnson said. “He wanted to be on a state tournament team.”
Interest in golf and tennis has waned over the years. This year’s golf team had only four players, all of whom are seniors. For tennis, only three boys and 10 girls came out. Each side has only two returners.
But Johnson welcomes all comers.
“I tell the kids you don’t need experience to play,” Johnson said. “We will teach you what you need to know.”
Mason Sauder is a perfect example.
Sauder had played only baseball when he arrived at Unity Reed as a freshman. But at the urging of his parents, he decided to try golf to help acclimate himself to a new school over the summer before classes began in the fall.
Johnson assured Sauder’s parents he was in good hands.
“She just said, ‘Leave him with me and I will guide him the rest of the way,’” said Mason’s mother, Kendra. “And she did.”
The longest-tenured head varsity coaches at their current schools in Prince William County, the City of Manassas and Manassas Park:
Sauder reached regionals each of his four years. More importantly, though, Sauder’s self-confidence grew.
“You have parents who take their kids out of Unity Reed and put them in another school for athletics,” Kendra said. “These people don’t know what they are missing out on with her as a coach.”
Neemann, the tennis player, thrived under Johnson’s tutelage as well.
As a freshman playing No. 1 singles, Neemann felt out of place competing with older players on the team. But Johnson valued Neemann’s suggestions. And Neemann appreciated Johnson’s collaborative leadership style. Her humility still impresses Neemann even now.
“I can say with 100 percent certainty that this still applies to her today,” said Neemann, who went on to compete at Valparaiso University. “She cares. There are a lot of coaches who view their players as a number or as a means to an end. You do the job and move on. That’s not how she is. She cares about people.”
Johnson’s generosity extends to her fellow coaches, even at other schools. She helped Osbourn Park’s first-year golf coach orient himself with setting up practice schedules at local courses and joined them for get-togethers. She also created joint practice sessions with the Manassas Park team to make sure both squads had enough players to compete with each other.
Johnson turns no one away.
“She’s a warrior,” said Manassas Park head golf coach and longtime friend Gerry Campbell. “She just keeps going.”
Johnson’s calendar is jam-packed.
Usually, Johnson takes a break between coaching high school golf in the fall and tennis in the spring, but the golf season, along with the other fall sports, was moved to the winter this year due to the pandemic. When tennis practice opened April 12, she was at the regional golf meet.
She also had to squeeze in cataract surgery April 14 on her right eye, followed by the same procedure on the left eye May 5.
There are the regularly scheduled golf outings twice a week with her ladies league, of which, of course, she’s the co-president. She typically plays Tuesday mornings and Wednesday afternoons, although the latter sometimes has to wait until tennis season is over.
Plus, she tends the flower beds with roses and daffodils that brighten the outside of the Unity Reed tennis court. Johnson works on those Sundays when it’s quieter, while keeping a watchful eye on the tennis courts to make sure no one is jumping on the nets or riding a bike on the surface.
Johnson also takes an occasional moment to visit with Kimberly Lynch.
A 1986 Stonewall Jackson graduate, Lynch died of bone cancer in September 1987 at the age of 19. Lynch, who played tennis in high school, received her cancer diagnosis the day of her high school graduation.
To honor Lynch’s memory, her parents created a memorial garden in front of the tennis courts and also a scholarship in her name. She was Johnson’s physical education aide for several years.
“I will come by and we’ll have a chat,” Johnson said.
On this day in early April, she has a rare free moment only because Sauder has decided to golf with his grandfather. Johnson had originally scheduled this Monday to take him to Prince William Golf Course as a tune-up for regionals in two weeks.
But when Sauder called to say his grandfather was available to golf, Johnson said great. As long as Sauder was playing, it didn’t matter who his partner was. She wanted him as ready as possible for the postseason. How he did it and with whom was irrelevant.
That’s Mepes Johnson. Kids first. Her own interests are an afterthought.
After all, she says with a knowing smile but serious tone, “Isn’t that why we do it?”
Spoken like a true teacher.
Hugh Rist contributed to this story