Former Indian prepares for CWS stage

After four years at the University of North Carolina, a former St. Stephens grad is preparing for the national stage.

Patrick Johnson, a former standout on the Indians’ baseball team, will take the mound at 2 p.m. Saturday, as he guides the Tarheels (50-14) against the Vanderbilt Commodores in the first game of the 2011 College World Series.

Johnson said moving from a senior at St. Stephens to a freshman at UNC was a difficult transition.

“Everything is bigger,” Johnson said. “Hickory is small town. When I got to UNC, there were 30,000 students on campus. I’ve just had to adjust to the college life, especially baseball. It’s been an experience, but I’ve loved all of it. It’s been fun.”

On June 23, 2010, Johnson had arthroscopic posterior capsule release surgery on his shoulder.

He said the decision to have surgery helped him this season.

“I was able to get some relief with my surgery,” Johnson said. “That was the biggest thing for me. I’m able to pitch pain-free now. This year has been a special year for our team. Everyone is playing with confidence. I have such great players behind me. It helps you rise to the occasion when you have such good players behind you. They play defense so well, and our offense is so good that it helps me out a lot.”

It’s been an tremendous senior season for Johnson. During his first three years at UNC, Johnson’s record was 12-6 with a 3.76 earned run average.

This season, Johnson’s ERA is down to 2.77 and his record is 13-1. He is one win away from tying the all-time wins mark set by Greg Norris in 1978.

“When I came here I never would have thought my name would be mentioned with the great pitchers at UNC for having that many wins,” Johnson said. “It is a tribute to my team and how they’ve played throughout the year. It is really special and means a lot to me, but it would be more special if we could go out there and win a national championship this year.”

Johnson’s season and accomplishments were validated just a few weeks ago, when he was selected by the Rockies in the 25th round.

With so much going on in his life, Johnson said that he tries to take a step back from it all.

“You have to take it in when it happens,” Johnson said. “You have to try to look past it the next day and get everything back to normal. Coach Fox tells us about not being too high or being too low and try to be even kiel. That’s sort of what you have to do. You have to try and manage it and not live on cloud nine. You have to make things normal.”

Johnson has been a part of four NCAA tournament appearances and three College World Series berths.

This year’s College World Series is moving from Rosenblatt Stadium, which hosted the event from 1950-2010, to TD Ameritrade Park.

Johnson said the change in venue and scenery won’t effect his mentality at all.

“The new stadium won’t change things much,” Johnson said. “If anything, it makes it that much more exciting. We get to play in the very first game of the College World Series. I get to throw out the very first pitch at the new stadium in the College World Series. I am pretty excited about it. The first time I got to throw in the College World Series, I was a little bit starstruck throwing in front of 27,000 people. It definitely was an experience that will help me out there this time.”

Johnson said he knows playing against the Commodores will be tough, but he is ready for every challenge.

“I know they are a great hitting team and are hot right now,” Johnson said. “They seem to be swinging the bat well. I know it is going to be a challenge and a tough game, but I am looking forward to it.”