Raider Profile: Marthalyn Johnson of Women's Tennis
For all intents and purposes, Marthalyn Johnson thought her tennis career was over after she received her associate's degree from Rowan College of Gloucester two years ago.
"My goal all along was to go to law school," Johnson said. "So after Rowan College, I took a year off and was going to go to Rutgers-Camden. I wasn't going to play tennis."
But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a lawyer. Johnson was offered an academic scholarship to Rutgers-Newark.
Johnson got herself set up in an apartment off campus. She got a job as a pharmacy technician at a local CVS in West Orange, working upwards of 30 hours per week – and sometimes more.
"I didn't have the time to play tennis," Johnson said. "Between work and school, I didn't think I could handle it."
Enter Tom Battaglia. The second-year Rutgers-Newark head women's tennis coach is trying to build a program from the ground up, so he needed all the capable players he could find.
"I knew that Marthalyn played fifth singles at Rowan College of Gloucester," Battaglia said. "And that team went to the national junior college tournament after winning the Region 19 tournament. I knew she came from a good program and I was trying to build a good program. I thought it might be a good fit."
So Battaglia tried to convince the reluctant Johnson to play for the Scarlet Raiders.
"She's a very good student and she has a good job," Battaglia said. "She didn't know if she could fit tennis into her schedule. I told her that she had only two years left of college and that she should give it a try."
Battaglia's words hit home.
"Coach Tom told me that it could work out," Johnson said. "If he said so, then I believed him."
Johnson, who was a standout tennis player at West Deptford High School, showed up with no expectations whatsoever.
"I wasn't sure of the other girls," Johnson said. "I wasn't sure where I would fit in."
"Incredibly, she ran through everyone," Battaglia said. "She went from being the No. 5 at a junior college to being the No. 1 for a team in the NJAC. We had challenge matches and she went right to No. 1. She was a little nervous about it at first, but she competed hard."
Johnson was somewhat surprised how she could handle the rigors of college tennis and a demanding job, not to mention maintaining a 3.6 grade point average.
"It was pretty hard, but not as hard as I thought it would be," Johnson said. "I practiced in the morning, then went to classes and then went to my job. Being with the rest of the girls on the team, it just clicked. And I've been playing tennis for a long time and I love it. So that helped."
Playing first singles, Johnson has posted a 4-5 record, including a 3-2 record in the New Jersey Athletic Conference.
She also plays doubles with Jessica Smoot and that pairing has produced a 2-0 record at second doubles.
Needless to say, the reluctant player has made her mark at first singles and second doubles.
"She won her third match and that was the first time our first singles won a match in a long time," Battaglia said. "I knew she'd win a couple in the conference. The girls we face in the conference are pretty strong, but I knew she could do it."
"I just wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to play college tennis again," Johnson said. "I didn't expect to become first singles. I'm very surprised, but I'm happy. I'm also grateful to the other girls on the team who accepted me."
Johnson was asked if there was any added pressure being the top singles player at R-N.
"I can't say that there was that much pressure, because I was first singles on my high school team and handled that pretty well," Johnson said. "You get used to it after a while. I just want to take advantage of the chance and have some fun. At first, it was hard, because I had taken the time off, but I got back into the groove, playing all the time."
Johnson is a political science major at R-N and still has the aspirations of law school in her mind. She knows that she doesn't want to continue working as a pharmacy technician after she's done with school.
"I think I want to do something with medical malpractice or immigration," said Johnson, who was born in Liberia and came to the United States when she was seven years old. "I know a lot of medical issues because of my job, so that may help."
Battaglia is pleased that Johnson decided to play tennis – and she has another year of eligibility if she so chooses to play next year.
"We've gone from 2-12 last year to doubling our win total (4-7) with her," Battaglia said. "Without her, I don't know where would be. But I know that Rutgers-Newark is on the rise. We've already had some recruits come in. East Orange brought their entire team in for a visit. Marthalyn has helped to put us on the map."
Battaglia said that Johnson is a bright young woman with a sharp mind.
"She's very outspoken," Battaglia said. "She will tell you what's on her mind. She also has a good sense of humor with her teammates. Marthalyn also doesn't get nervous. She's always calm and says the right things. If something is not right, she'll say something. She's like the voice of the team."
If there's one regret, it's that Battaglia didn't get a chance to coach Johnson longer.
"I'm going to take this for as long as I can," Battaglia said. "If it's only two years, well, two years are better than nothing. I'd love to have more like her. I encourage more like her to come."
Johnson loves being part of the team now.
"It's the best decision I could have made," Johnson said. "I've made a lot of good friends. The school is amazing. Coach Tom is amazing. It was a great decision."
And it was one that changed the face of the Rutgers-Newark women's tennis program forever.