The first pitch of her Eastern Oregon career in 1999 sailed over the backstop. The second bounced in the dirt.
But the inauspicious start to Robin Lisak Johnson’s softball career at EOU quickly straightened out. She went on to defeat No. 1 Simon Fraser that day in Eastern’s season opener and turned in two of the best seasons in program history.
She was among five former Mountaineers
enshrined into the EOU
Athletic Hall of Fame, Friday.
“Character, service, dedication and athletics excellence are only a few of the words that can be used to describe these inductees,” EOU Athletic Director Anji Weissenfluh said.
Johnson was an integral piece of EOU’s softball team in 1999 and 2000, which took fourth and fifth in the nation, respectively, and won 78 games in those two years.
Johnson, an NAIA first-team All-American in 1999 and second-teamer in 2000, set several single season and career records that still stand today, including career ERA (1.08), career strikeouts per seven innings pitched (7.44), single-season wins (24), ERA (0.88), complete games (24) and shutouts (12), to name a few.
Johnson told the story of being bribed into playing softball in her youth by her mom with candy, and the fact that her dad was a coach. It turned out to be a good move.
“I had no idea the lessons that pitching would teach me,” she said.
Johnson added that more than the win and losses, she remembers the “hard work and the moments” she had with her team, later saying, “the moments that we shared are always in my heart.”
Along with Johnson was a trio of Mountaineer football players, each of whom, while recounting stories of games played in driving rainstorm or old practice tales, also spoke of the relationships with players and coaches that were established decades ago, and that are still in-tact today.
“That’s what Eastern’s all about. It’s the relationships,” said 1985 graduate Howard Therien, a two-time member of the All-Evergreen Conference team.
The relationships and connections through EOU run beyond La Grande, as Therien pointed out. Therien, who is now a school administrator in Idaho, noted several times he’s hired a fellow Mountaineer.
“I’ve never been disappointed in someone I’ve hired from Eastern,” he said.
One of those people was fellow inductee Jeff Church, a 1995 graduate who now teaches in New Plymouth, Idaho, a position he was hired to by Therein.
Church credited his parents for the characteristics they taught him, including humility in success and graciousness in defeat.
“This award is your award,” he said.
Church, who is on the coaching staff at New Plymouth, credited Brian Keller, who was on the coaching staff for EOU at the time, with teaching him much of what he now implements.
“I learned a lot of my skills as a coach from him,” he said.
He also shared taking pride in being part of a movement that saw EOU go from being winless in 1989 — the final of a six-year stretch that saw EOU go 2-51-3 — to becoming a formidable opponent, winning 10 games over the next three years.
“One of the things I’m proud about in my time here is changing the culture of the program,” he said.
Jerry Deal, a 1976 graduate and all-conference player, said Eastern was good to him.
“Good students, good friends, and we had a (darn) good football team,” he said.
But while he added that “football was a really big part of my life,” he said his family, many of whom were in attendance, completed him.
“They’re my hall of famers. That’s what made my life complete,” he said.
John Tolan, a 1985 graduate and baseball player who was at one time drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, also spoke of the importance of relationships during his time at EOU.
“For me, it was all about those connections,” he said.
Tolan, who was married and had children during his time at the school, credited his wife, Debbie for making him “into the man I always wanted to be.”
He also praised former football coach Lee Insko and baseball coach Howard Fetz.
“I thank Lee for taking me under his wing and guiding me,” Tolan said.
Speaking of Fetz, he added: “He taught us the intricacies of each position, and about hard work and determination. I think I’m a better person for those things he taught me.”
Also honored Friday night was 1975 graduate Art Thunell, who, after his playing days at Eastern had a legendary career as a baseball coach at Grant Union, winning 590 games, 22 league championships and three state titles.
Thunell touched on the importance of having passion in what you do.
He said that as he built up the Grant Union program and started reaching the playoffs, he noticed how many coaches were EOU alumni.
“That to me, was a real tribute to coach Fetz,” he said.
Thunell added the importance of who a person surrounds themselves with, and said that was vital for him.
“That’s the key. You’ve got to have good people,” he said.