Johnson fights back
When Carolina gathered for practice on Monday, May 21, Hobbs Johnson was the happiest Tar Heel at Boshamer Stadium.
It was just a typical pre-ACC Tournament practice. But for Johnson, it was much more than that--it represented how far he had come in 12 months.
Johnson, a sophomore, will start today's NCAA Tournament opener against Cornell. It will be his first-ever NCAA appearance. Last year, as a freshman, he struggled academically and was not on the postseason roster. He didn't travel with the Tar Heels to the College World Series, and he wasn't even at Boshamer for the regional and super-regional games. Mike Fox had met with him after Carolina's final regular season series and told him to turn in his gear, that he wasn't upholding the "student" part of the student-athlete responsibilities.
But Johnson refused to accept that verdict.
"He looked me dead in the eye," Fox remembers, "and said, 'I'll be back next year.'"
Fox didn't think it was possible. In the fluid world of college baseball, where every roster spot is precious, he was already planning for 2012 without the lefty. But Johnson, who watched every 2011 postseason game by himself in his Chapel Hill apartment, was committed. He asked his head coach a simple question: "If I make four A's in summer school, will I be back on the team?"
"Hobbs," Fox said, "let's just take one step at a time."
In other words, the coach was skeptical. Johnson had plenty of other options. He's a lefthander who throws a baseball 90 miles per hour, so there will always be suitors. The path of least resistance was to find a less challenging environment, where the coaches would doubtless be thrilled to have him, and succeed somewhere else.
But Johnson wanted to have his success at North Carolina. So he nailed two A's in the first session of summer school. Then he earned two more in the second session. And suddenly, without throwing a pitch under game conditions, he'd showed Fox and pitching coach Scott Forbes that he was capable of being a key player.
"How can you not admire someone who does that?" Fox says. "How can you not be impressed by it? In our minds, he went from the bottom of the barrel to almost the very top, just because of what he had shown he was willing to do."
This would be a nice story if Johnson was just a fringe player, someone who picks up spot innings out of the bullpen. Instead, he's solidified the Carolina weekend rotation. He became the Sunday starter on April 21 against Georgia Tech and has excelled, with a 6-1 record, 1.37 ERA and .167 batting average against. The coaching staff had no qualms about giving him the ball in the NCAA opener.
Despite his success, Johnson remembers exactly where he was last year at this time, which might be why he's where he is today. At the first Tar Heel practice prior to the ACC Tournament this year--a time when he was off the roster as a freshman--Johnson approached Fox on the practice field. "This is a good day," Johnson said to his head coach.
"I had to think about it for a second," Fox says. "But he remembers where he was last year. And I think he'll always remember it, as long as he's here. I've never had a kid make the progress that he's made."