There aren’t a lot of baseball players who are capable of being weekend starters on the mound at the Division I level, and batting over .300 at that level is no small feat either. Doing both seems impossible, but not for Joe Johnson.
The South Johnston alumnus was a stud early in his career. As a sophomore in 2014 he was named the Two Rivers Conference Player of the Year, helping lead the Trojans to an Eastern Regional final appearance as the team’s ace on the mound.
High Point University recruited Johnson as a two-way player — without ever seeing him pitch, as Johnson underwent surgery prior to his senior season. He continued to play as a designated hitter though, and in one game, with a High Point assistant in attendance, he homered twice. Johnson finished his career at South with a .404 batting average and 21 home runs, including a walkoff homer against Triton and a grand slam in the NCHSAA playoffs.
“He came in when I did,” said current South Johnston head coach Aaron Parnell, who took over the program in 2015 after serving as the JV coach and an assistant on varsity. “And you could tell right away that he was special. He was always a leader, even as a sophomore. And he’s one of the most talented guys I’ve ever coached.”
Johnson took that talent to High Point, and has had a very productive career as a Panther.
As a sophomore in 2018, he emerged as a weekend starter late in the year. In five starts, he went 3-0 with a 2.97 ERA, and gave up three runs or fewer in four of those starts. He struck out a career-best six batters in a win against his hometown team and Big South rival, Campbell. Johnson’s bat lagged a bit behind that season: in 22 games as a hitter, he batted .207 with two homers and 12 RBIs.
“Going into this season, it looked like I was going to be the guy on the mound as a starter,” Johnson said. “But it kind of flip flopped.”
Johnson underwent a change in approach in the batter’s box prior to the 2019 season. Before, his swing was “very high-energy” and “herkey jerkey.” His hitting coach told him to relax, almost to the point where he doesn’t even care.
The switch made a big difference. Johnson led High Point with a .324 batting average and 39 RBIs this past year, ripping nine doubles and four homers. He tied the program record with six hits against Presbyterian in the Big South Tournament, helping him earn All-Tournament honors.
But as his performance in the batter’s box improved, his performance on the mound waned. He was still a regular starter for the Panthers, but in 14 appearances he posted a 6.18 ERA and allowed a .303 batting average.
“It was frustrating at times,” Johnson said. “It was good to know I had it going the other way and that I was still contributing to the team. But it was definitely a humbling experience on the mound.”
Johnson said he thinks the lax approach to hitting started to affect his mentality on the mound.
“It’s something I’ve talked a lot about with the coaches,” Johnson said. “The key for me is going to be finding that happy-medium. Because if I do, I think I’ll be ready to have a huge senior year.”
Parnell said he believes that Johnson can figure it out. And if he does, Parnell thinks he could make a big splash.
“There’s not many guys like him in Division I baseball,” Parnell said. “Not many can pitch on the weekends and hit for themselves... I’m not surprised at all by the success he’s had. You can’t put together a lineup of nine guys without him and feel good about it. With his talent, both in the box and on the mound, along with his work ethic, I think he could continue playing at the next level.”
Johnson said he has every intention of playing professional baseball. Asked if he had to pick one, pitching or hitting, he said it was too tough to call.
“It’s been my dream since I was a kid, to play pro baseball,” Johnson said. “So honestly, whatever I have the opportunity to do, I’m going to run with it.”
For now, though, Johnson doesn’t have to choose. He fully expects to be a weekend starter and a full-time hitter for High Point. And he thinks the Panthers could potentially challenge Campbell for the Big South Championship.
“We’re trying to get Coach Cozart his first,” Johnson said. “We had a very young team this past season. It’s exciting because we’re bringing back so much talent. I think we’re going to have a good year, and I want to be part of something special in my senior year. I want to leave behind a legacy.”
While Johnson looks to cement his legacy at High Point, he can take solace in knowing that he’s already left one behind at South. He attributed the opportunities he received there with the success he’s had in college.
“Playing baseball at South Johnston is a special experience,” Johnson said. “Coach Parnell and coach Durham were very influential. They taught me a lot of things, most importantly how to work hard. I’m appreciative for that and I still talk to both of them. The Easter Tournament is one of the best times as a high schooler. There’s something about the culture there. It’s just a lot of fun to play baseball at South Johnston. It sticks with you, and I’m really blessed to be a part of that.”