Prep Baseball: East Rowan's Johnson to Catawba

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 3, 2011

By Mike London
GRANITE QUARRY — East Rowan senior Will Johnson’s fastballs tops out at 80 mph, but coach Brian Hightower wouldn’t swap him for any pitcher in the state.
While Johnson’s hurling remains mostly an unsolved mystery to hitters, his next destination is known. Johnson has verbally committed to Catawba. He’ll major in Physical Education with the idea of becoming a coach.
“I got a couple of phone calls from other schools, but I knew it was Catawba as soon as I was offered to play baseball,” Johnson said. “I like Coach (Jim) Gantt. It’s close, and I like the campus.”
“It’s close, and I like the campus” amounts to a speech for the soft-spoken Johnson, who is so low-key, so polite, so unassuming, so un-scary-looking that it’s hard to believe that he kicks butt as often as he does.
“He’s totally laid-back,” Hightower said. “No ego.”
Hightower is almost reluctant to talk about the lefty reliever, who had a 0.00 ERA in his first 10 appearances out of the bullpen this season before running into trouble against Davie on Saturday.
Johnson amassed 24 strikeouts between walking a batter on March 4 and issuing another free pass April 1.
“I don’t want to jinx him by talking about him,” Hightower said. “He’s been just unbelievable for us the last two years. I’m almost speechless. I mean, what else do you say?”
The numbers say a lot.
Johnson’s magic started last spring when Hightower started turning to him every game. He pitched in East’s last 11 contests, as the Mustangs rolled to a 31-2 record and the 3A state championship. It was a powerful team with an All-American third baseman in Noah Holmes, but there wouldn’t have been a celebration without Johnson.
“No way we win it without him,” Hightower said.
Johnson’s last nine outings of 2010 came against quality opponents — teams such as Carson, Mount Pleasant, Northwest Cabarrus, Tuscola and Wilson Hunt — and all the quiet southpaw did was throw 221/3 consecutive scoreless innings. He walked three, while fanning 20.
Johnson’s six scoreless innings with six punchouts against power-packed Tuscola in the Western championship series at Staton Field had to be seen to be believed.
Johnson finished his All-State junior season with the state’s lowest ERA (0.52), a 7-0 record and five saves.
Johnson seems surprised by his success, almost as surprised as the hitters who are swinging and missing those 80 mph “heaters.”
“Everyone tells me my pitches have a lot of movement,” Johnson said. “I can’t explain it. I just throw strikes, try to hit spots and depend on my defense. That’s about it.”
Johnson followed his fantastic junior year with a 6-1 record, three saves and 46 strikeouts in 312/3 innings of American Legion ball for Rowan County last summer.
Gantt, who performs double duty as coach of the Legion team, watched Johnson baffle batters frequently. He couldn’t put his finger on exactly why hitters struggled to solve him, but he was thrilled with the results.
Johnson has similarities with Catawba senior reliever Wil Huneycutt, who isn’t overpowering but has gotten dozens of key outs over the course of his college career.
Johnson throws his low-octane fastball about 90 percent of the time, although he’ll mix in the occasional curveball or changeup.
“Lots of fastballs, and I know I’ve got to be on a corner,” Johnson said. “If I get it in the middle, it’s not going to be good for me.”
Teammates contribute to Johnson’s success. Catcher Luke Thomas is adept at helping him set up hitters, while center fielder Will Sapp runs down anything that stays in the ballpark if Johnson makes a mistake.
Psychology is also part of Johnson’s mystique. NPC hitters have failed against Johnson for so long that they go to the plate now assuming bad things are about to happen.
Johnson is 1-0 with three saves this year. He had a two-season scoreless streak of 361/3 innings before he allowed two unearned runs on Friday against West Iredell.
For the most part, 2011 has been a replay of 2010 for Johnson, who has added 2 mph to his fastball.
In last week’s 3-1 NPC win against South Rowan, East’s fireballing starter Bradley Robbins struck out 13 in six innings, but Hightower still turned to Johnson for the seventh.
“Bradley was great, and I could’ve sent him back out there, but that’s when a high school kid can get into trouble when his pitch count gets up around 90,” Hightower said. “Will does the job every time. When we’re in that situation, we’ll use him.”
Johnson struck out the side to end the game — and did it in a hurry.
“Because I was freezing,” he said with a smile.
There are few sure things in baseball, but Johnson has been close. East fans call him “Lights Out,” and he’s earned that nickname. His appearance out of the pen is usually a cue for an opponent to start the bus.
“People want me to start Will, but how can you change his role when he’s so great at it,” Hightower said. “With him on the back end, it’s like having Mariano Rivera. I don’t want to jinx him, but a high school Mariano Rivera is what he’s been for us.”