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U High’s head volleyball coach Bonita Johnson warmup with the team before the match up against St. Michael on Tuesday.

Everybody has a novel coronavirus pandemic story. None are like the one University High coach Bonita Johnson has.

An amazing accomplishment, a sense of thankfulness and poignant sadness … it is all there, along with an important health message for women.

“Getting 1,000 wins really is something … but not anything I ever thought about,” Johnson said. “I take it day by day and game to game. What can we do to prepare for the next game or practice? Do we have everything set up for the next game?

“When you add a bunch of days and games together it adds up. I guess that really hit me Thursday night. I am thankful to be able to coach both sports the way I have been allowed to all these years.”

Johnson, affectionately called “C.J.” by her players, reached out on social media early Friday morning to thank all her past and present assistant coaches, players and former players, administrators and parents who are part of her journey to 1,000 combined career wins in volleyball (536-145) and basketball (464-128).

A 3-0 victory over Zachary High on Thursday night brought the milestone that assistants Susan Gremillion and Trey Whitney and UHS athletic director Jill White were prepared for. Johnson, a former DeRidder High basketball star who played for Stephen F. Austin and LSU, was presented with a trophy commemorating the event.

After the gym lights went off, there were two things Johnson longed to do that are no longer possible.

“I wanted to call my dad,” Johnson said. “My dad could always sense when we lost in my voice. He was always a positive voice for me when I played and through my years as a coach.

“He would say, ‘You know, you can’t win them all … you tell me that all the time.’ And I would say, ‘Yes, but I always want to win.’ ”

Johnson’s father, retired Army Command Sgt. Major Sidney Branch, died at age 91 early in the pandemic in north Louisiana, days before Johnson’s 57th birthday. Equally difficult was the loss of her sister Gail, who died suddenly, approximately three weeks ago.

Growing up in a constantly moving military family with seven other siblings, Johnson said she and Gail, a track star at DeRidder, were always close.

“I was lucky because I got to spend time with my sister over the summer,” Johnson said. “I wanted to call her too, but I can’t. I am not used to this yet.”

Johnson then goes on a rapid recall, trying to name as many people as possible who helped during her 25-year career. She is in her 19th year at UHS and also coached both sports at Lee High for six years. Jack Stokeld, the principal who hired her at Lee, now known as Liberty High, comes to mind first.

About two weeks ago, Johnson made a different kind of call that was likely a lifesaver. As the Cubs prepared to travel to Brusly for a preseason scrimmage, Johnson said she felt a tightness in her chest and a severe burning sensation under her left arm.

Instead of heading over the bridge to a scrimmage, Johnson went to the doctor. She was quickly admitted to the hospital and had a stent placed in a coronary artery.

Last week, Johnson was back on the bench for the Cubs.

“Women don’t always listen to their bodies,” Johnson said. “We tend to put things off and wait to see a doctor because we have something to get done.

“I am glad I didn’t and encourage other women to do the same. Life is precious. You never know what will come at you. This year has been rough, but I still count blessings.”


Email Robin Fambrough at rfambrough@theadvocate.com