When Jenna Johnson became an assistant coach at her alma mater three years ago, she was surprised to see the condition of the Mother McAuley soccer program.

The team had fallen on hard times, a far cry from Johnson’s days when the Mighty Macs were consistently winning regional and conference titles.

But as an assistant to Coach Denny Clanton, Johnson witnessed the program start to grow.

Now the Mother McAuley soccer coach, Johnson, a 2005 alumna, is ready to lead the Macs back to their glory days.

Clanton resigned after three seasons to move to Georgia with his family.

“When I first came back, I was shocked to hear how different the program was than when I was here,” Johnson said. “It was exciting to be an assistant. The head coaching spot being open was unexpected, but I really like where the program is heading.”

Johnson was a standout four-year varsity player for the Macs, winning the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference (GCAC) Athlete of the Year in her senior season.

She was named All-State twice and All-Conference four times.

Johnson played soccer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and moving to the sidelines as an assistant coach in 2016, Johnson quickly learned even more.

“As a player, I was always focused on scoring,” Johnson said. “Now, I take in the game a lot more defensively. I’ve definitely learned a lot more on the defensive end. Defense, that’s Denny’s specialty. That’s really helped me, just hearing him coach the defenders.”

Clanton finished 36-26-2 in his three seasons, including a breakout 16-7-2 campaign last spring.

The Mighty Macs earned a 4-seed in the tough Andrew sectional, losing to Lincoln-Way West in the regional title game after a heartbreaking penalty-kick shootout.

Despite that loss, Johnson said the team has experienced plenty of improvement.

“This year, we did exactly what we were supposed to do and got a good seed, but we just weren’t able to finish,” Johnson said. “We’re back on the path, so as long as we keep winning, we feel like we’ve gained some respect.”

Johnson said the team’s strong play against deep fields at the PepsiCo Showdown and the Chicago Cup demonstrated that the Macs not only belong on the field with top teams but are capable of winning those games.

With a tough GCAC slate filling out the schedule, Johnson said the McAuley players understand there will be no easy wins, but no opponent is unstoppable.

“I always want to win. We have the potential to keep doing that,” Johnson said. “We’ve done really well at PepsiCo and the Chicago Cup. We finished third in GCAC, so it’d be nice to have a couple more wins there.”

Johnson plans to employ a 3-4-3 formation, depending on personnel.

Mother McAuley expects to return six starters from last year’s 16-7-2 squad as well as several other players who were key performers off the bench.

For Johnson, a lifelong soccer fan, she’s enjoyed seeing the popularity of women’s soccer continue to grow, especially following the U.S. Women’s National Team’s win in the World Cup this summer, its fourth overall.

“I’ve seen a lot more interest,” Johnson said. “I read an article about boys wearing Alex Morgan jerseys. That’s cool in itself. That shows how popular it’s become. With the social media presence, it’s taken over.”