DENVER — Johnnie Hill is the type of athlete who wakes up before the sun rises to get in offseason workouts, and stays after practice to perfect her shot.
It’s a work ethic that runs in the family.
When Denver’s returning all-state soccer standout joins Northern Iowa’s program in the fall, she’ll become the third member of her immediate family to represent the Panthers through athletics. Her father, Johnny, played football at UNI, as did her oldest brother, Barkley, a former Parade All-American at Cedar Falls High School.
Her mom, Kathy, used to play basketball, and she describes her brother Romaro, the middle child, as the life of the family with his upbeat personality.
“Our parents always pushed us to try and be great,” Johnnie Hill said. “Try and be the best that we can. That competitive nature has been inside of us.”
Hill says she gravitated towards soccer as a first grader after the family moved from West Des Moines to Denver. It was the sport all her friends played within a small community that has established a tradition of soccer success.
With her father, a sports enthusiast, Hill says an active lifestyle was promoted from a young age.
“He just encouraged us and always put in our minds that if you work hard and put in the effort you’ll become successful,” Hill said. “He’s always made it fun for us. When we were kids, he always had us playing outside, any type of sport, and encouraged us to put everything we had in that sport.”
A year-round soccer player who has competed within the Cedar Valley Select program since middle school, Hill has made an impact on Denver’s program as a four-year starter.
“Johnnie has been an integral part of the team since her freshman year,” said Emily Gielau, a first-year co-head coach who has been on Denver’s coaching staff since 2010. “When she wasn’t the scoring leader, she was the assist leader. She has always had the talent and skill to create opportunities on the field. Recently, she has developed into a leader not only by example, but on and off the field in every aspect.”
Hill admits becoming a leader was part of her growing process.
“My freshman year I was kind of terrified,” she recalls. “You want everyone to like you and I was kind of quiet. Last year and this year, I’ve definitely stepped up as a leader and have become more confident in myself.
“I think I kind of had a switch after my sophomore season to put in extra work. I worked my butt off during the offseason with my club and I think that just helped me with my overall success junior and senior year.”
Transitioning from an outside midfielder used to having her own space to create, Hill successfully handled a new role as the team’s striker up top. She ranked among the state leaders with 32 goals last season, and has picked up from where she left off this spring.
The returning all-stater is averaging two goals a game for a Denver squad that has jumped out to a 6-0 start.
“It added a lot of pressure, but at the same time I feel like I deal with pressure pretty well,” Hill said, addressing her evolution into a lead scorer. “My teammates, they push me every day and if I make a mistake in a game they’re always there to boost my confidence.
“I have my teammates there who always come up to me and they just get me amped up. They tell me if I miss a shot, ‘That’s fine. We’re here for you.’ I just love having that support. We have a really close bond.”
Hill has seen her team mature this season with a defense that has allowed only one goal through the first six games. That score came in a showdown with Class 2A’s No. 8 Union. Hill scored the equalizing goal in that contest, and drew a penalty kick off a breakaway that teammate Annie Place converted to secure a 2-1 win.
“Last year we were young and had a lot of freshmen and sophomores who hadn’t really played that (defensive) position before,” Hill said. “This year we’ve gotten stronger with our defense, midfield and overall. We’ve had a lot of girls step up and give everything they have.”
Co-head coach Jackie Gielau says Hill’s constant voice, calling out switches and helping to direct traffic, makes her a coach on the field. The senior has developed into a more physical presence, as well.
“She’s going to do extremely well at that next level and I’m excited to see what she can do at UNI,” said Jackie Gielau, who played soccer at UNI herself before coaching stints at Denver, Waterloo East, West Des Moines Valley and Pella. “Not only has she gotten to where she is because of her upbringing and club team, it’s also because of her love for the game of soccer at the high school level and the support her teammates give her.”
Added Emily Gielau, “She has the heart, drive and passion that’s not always common with the high school athlete. She’s a great example of what hard work and perseverance can bring to an athlete. She has the skill level and fitness to have success at the college level from the start.”