Central High baseball coach Roy Dixon tells an anecdote to make his point about how hard his shortstop Blake Johnson works.
The short version goes like this: The Red Devils had just returned to the school after playing four baseball games in two days at a tournament. It was well after hours, about 2 or 3 a.m., and the players were staggering back to their cars to head home.
Despite the long couple of days, Dixon was sure he would likely see Johnson back working the next day.“I grabbed Blake and I told him to take the next day off,” Dixon said. “ I made him promise me he wouldn’t work the next day.”
Johnson, who is heading into his senior year, has spent two years on varsity with Central, improving his game to the point that he was selected to represent his school in Alabama’s North-South All-Star game at 5 p.m. on Monday at Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, Ala.
Johnson expressed his excitement over being selected for the game, noting that he didn’t know it was a possibility until Dixon called him into the office near the end of the school year.
Dixon, whose Red Devils struggled to just eight wins last season, said it was satisfying to have one of his guys be able to represent the team.
The commitment to the game stems from a love Johnson said he’s had since he was very young.“I don’t know, I’ve always loved it,” he said. “The fact you can fail seven out of 10 times, and (can) still be really successful. It’s just a challenge.”
Listed at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds on the roster, he is one of the smaller players on either team in the game. Johnson knows that, and he tries to make up for it in other ways.
If he’s not on the field honing his abilities at the plate or at shortstop, then he’s in the gym working relentlessly to increase his strength.
“I’m not a big guy,” Johnson said. “My size is probably the biggest thing I have to work on, so that’s what I try to do.”
Johnson has received interest from Division II and III teams, including Columbus State, and also UAB in Division I. Dixon said he tells some of the coaches from the smaller teams that if Johnson was 15 pounds heavier, they wouldn’t have a shot at him.
“He’s a Division-I type of player,” Dixon said. “I fully believe that he’s got at least a handful of years playing baseball ahead of him.”
Dixon raved about Johnson’s natural ability at shortstop. As a sophomore, Dixon said, Johnson missed the first half of the season due to injury, took over the starting job halfway through the season and became the glue that held the team together.
As a junior, despite the team’s struggles, Johnson hit .323 with 21 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. During the summer, Johnson played on the prestigious Team Elite traveling team (based in Atlanta), which regularly sends players to Division I and the pros. Hitting leadoff for the team, Johnson batted .429 with 12 RBIs and 14 stolen bases, with his season ending last week.
Pressed for areas Johnson needed to improve, Dixon mentioned his size and said he’d like to see him drive the ball more into the gaps. In the field, though, Dixon praised Johnson’s ability as a “true” shortstop, who is fluid and can make all the throws.
“I still need to work on my leadership in the field,” said Johnson, who plays a position that is essentially the quarterback of the infield. “I didn’t need to lead as a sophomore because we had 17 seniors and last year, we had a handful of guys who did the talking. This year, I guess when you’re a senior, guys look up to you.”
He said he’s already gotten some of the younger guys together during the offseason to prepare for 2014, which he and Dixon both expect to be a vast improvement on this past season.
If Central does make big strides next season, Johnson will be a major reason why.
“If I could clone about 15 Blakes, I’d be in good shape,” Dixon said.
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.
2013 AHSAA All-Star Sports Week
July 15: Baseball
July 16: Soccer, softball
July 17: Basketball
July 18: Volleyball, football
July 19: Awards banquet