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College Baseball: Catawba’s Connor Johnson striking out on his own

By Mike London

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the bus hauling the Fond du Lac Dock Spiders baseball team is rolling up Interstate 43, making the two-hour road trip north from the Spiders’ last stop in Rockford, Illinois, to a series opener in Mequon, Wisconsin.

One of the Dock Spiders is southpaw Connor Johnson, a rising senior at Catawba College. Sixteen of Johnson’s 19 Fond du Lac teammates play Division I baseball for big-name schools such as Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi and Kansas, but Johnson’s left arm makes him a welcome member of any baseball team.

Johnson is playing far from home in the Northwoods League, one of those collegiate summer circuits where the hitters wield wood bats. The Northwoods League promotes itself as the biggest, busiest and most-attended of all the summer leagues. There are 20 teams, primarily in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but there also are franchises in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota and Canada. Teams play virtually without a break, with 72 games scheduled over a 76-day period. The playoffs follow that marathon regular season.

“It’s a lot like minor league baseball with so many games and all the travel,” said Johnson, a Rockwell native and East Rowan High graduate. “But the bus rides aren’t really that bad. The teams in the other division travel a lot more. We won’t be traveling to Canada unless we play that team (Thunder Bay Border Cats) in the playoffs.”

Johnson had to prove himself to a new set of teammates and coaches, of course, but he already has. He’s been on the mound twice so far in the high-powered league, throwing against mostly Division I guys. He’s experienced staggeringly successful results in one start and one long relief appearance —  10 1/3 innings, 17 strikeouts, no walks, no runs. You can’t do much better than that.

Johnson put together a quietly tremendous season at Catawba as a junior. A high ERA kept him from receiving postseason accolades, but high ERAs are part of the job when you’re pitching frequently at cozy Newman Park. Johnson was used in every possible role by the Indians, except closer. He only started five times, but he pitched in 29 of the Indians’ 57 games. He was 8-2 in 63 2/3 innings while striking out 66 and walking 22. It’s safe to say Catawba wouldn’t have won another South Atlantic Conference championship without him.

“I love coming out of the bullpen,” Johnson said. “But I’m always prepared to do either one. When Catawba needed me to start, I was fine with that, and I started several games at the end of the year.”

Johnson has hurled the last two summers for the Holly Springs Salamanders in the Coastal Plain League, a collegiate wood bat league based in the Carolinas and Virginia.

“I hadn’t heard anything from the Salamanders about pitching for them again this summer, so I didn’t know if I’d be going anywhere,” Johnson said. “(Catawba assistant coach) Chris Holke set  this up for me. He knew one of the coaches for Fond du Lac, and he asked me how I’d feel about spending the summer in Wisconsin. I figured, why not, and now I’m on a 30-day contract.”

College players can’t be paid by their team, obviously, but “contracts” take care of things like transportation, housing (with host families) and food.

Fond du Lac is a Wisconsin city of 43,000 that is located at the lower tip of huge, fish-filled Lake Winnebago. The English translation of Fond du Lac is bottom of the lake.

Johnson was given the honor of starting the home opener for the Dock Spiders, a brand new entry in the Northwoods League.

“When they told me I was starting the first home game, I was nervous and excited,” Johson said. “I tried to get my body and my mind right for it, and I did better than I expected.”

Johnson pitched six scoreless innings with eight strikeouts against the powerful Wisconsin Rapids Rafters. The Rafters are off to a 12-1 start, so that’s been their only loss so far.

Johnson also was scheduled to start against the Rafters on the road on June 7, but instead he came out of the bullpen.

“I didn’t feel good the day before the game, but a chiropractor helped me get some things straightened out,” Johnson said. “I didn’t start that game, but after I iced up and stretched, I felt just fine, and I went in the game in relief.”

He faced 15 batters and struck out nine.

Now Johnson is scheduled to make a start on Tuesday at home.

Johnson is throwing more changeups than he did at Catawba, and he’s using what he calls a “slutter” — a slider/cutter —  to get lefty batters out. His fastball velocity is always good, and he’s been able to spot it and get ahead with it.

There’s been only one thing that hasn’t gone perfectly for Johnson this summer. He likes to joke about it.

“My family dropped me off in Wisconsin and then they stopped in Chicago on the way home to watch the White Sox play Boston,” Johnson said. “I missed out, and I’m a big Red Sox fan.”

Johnson grew up as the son of a coach and learned how to handle agonizing losses and well as thrilling victories. His father, Craig, coached Erwin Middle School baseball for decades, so Connor had a head start on his peers. He’s been throwing baseballs since he could walk.

He became a phenom at East Rowan, 10-0 as a senior in 2014 and the winner of the Patrick Snider Memorial Award that goes to the Rowan County Pitcher of the Year. He struck out 114 in 80 innings and posted a 1.14 ERA. He was All-State and turned down the Division I schools that tried to recruit him, sticking with an early verbal commitment to Catawba.

Johnson also excelled in Legion baseball, and he once went nearly two full calendar years without losing a decision. Johnson didn’t lose between a high school setback against Weddington in the 3A state playoffs on May 10, 2013, and a setback in a Catawba uniform at Mount Olive on May 4, 2015.

He was 4-0 for Rowan County American Legion squad in the summer of 2013, 10-0 for East in the spring of 2014, and 7-0 for the Legion team in the summer of 2014. Then he won his first five decisions for Catawba as a freshman to make it 26 wins in a row before the streak was stopped.

Johnson (6 feet, 180 pounds) was so touted coming out of high school that college expectations were through the roof. He hasn’t been perfect at Catawba, but he’s been very good. He’s pitched in 65 games for the Indians in three seasons with 178 strikeouts in 193 innings. His overall record is 16-7.

“What I’m proudest of is that I’ve been part of championship teams,” Johnson said. “My freshman year we were national runner-up, and I know I helped out. My sophomore year wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but I feel like I got back on track my junior year. I can’t complain about how things have gone.”

Catawba had a strong junior nucleus in 2017 and will have very solid senior leadership next season from players such as outfielder Luke Setzer, a high school teammate of Johnson’s who has blossomed into a D-II All-American.

“The class was 18 or 20 when we came in at Catawba, and there’s still seven or eight of us left,” Johnson said. “All of us have grown a lot playing for Coach (Jim) Gantt, and we’re excited about next season.”

Johnson plans to become a special education teacher and coach, but he also has pro aspirations. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be riding buses around the Midwest this summer.

“The big dream is still there,” Johnson said. “But I’ve taken care of my schoolwork and I’ve worked hard at it. Education was the main thing when I came to Catawba, and it still is. I won’t be upset if pro baseball doesn’t work out. I’ll be prepared to start the rest of my life.”





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