Westchester’s Johnson picks Mountaineers

Nov. 29, 2012 @ 05:34 PM

Westchester Country Day School coach Joey Hammond vividly remembers first realizing Markel Johnson had the makings of a special baseball player.

It came when Johnson was 14 years old in a game in Florida, with his team facing a hard-throwing pitcher. Hammond was nervous about Johnson, being so young, being put into such a tough spot. But with his team down big late in the game, Johnson came into the game to hit, even though Hammond was still a bit apprehensive. But Johnson was not afraid — he was ready for the opportunity.

“He was on-deck and I was in the dugout, and he says to me, “Hey, Coach! I’m about to put on some fireworks,’” Hammond recalls with a laugh. “So, he goes up there, and I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be hilarious.’ I totally thought he was going to be overmatched. But he puts together a really good at-bat, ends up grounding out — but to put the ball in play in that situation was the first sign to me that there’s something here.”

Years later, Johnson, a senior center fielder and leadoff hitter, has proven that what Hammond saw that day in Florida was no fluke — that he does have what it takes to challenge himself and be successful — and has continued to work hard and improve. That’s why, in large part, Johnson has signed to continue playing at NCAA Division I Appalachian State in the coming years.

“I’m very excited and I can’t wait,” says Johnson, the son of Eric and Deon Johnson of Greensboro. “When I went on my official visit, I loved everything about the school. The environment, the scenery, the coaching staff, the facilities — everything about the school. I just absolutely fell in love with it as soon as I got there. I had that feeling, like I knew where I wanted to be.”

A three-time All-Triad Athletic Conference selection, Johnson, who played for Hammond at Veritas Sports Academy prior to coming to Westchester, was named all-state en route to helping lead the Wildcats to their first-ever state title, winning the 2012 NCISAA 2A championship two games to one against Caldwell Academy to cap a 23-7-1 season. He also won the Wildcat Award.

“He’s meant just about everything,” Hammond says. “He’s an emotional leader, a sparkplug. There’s a reason why we put him at the top of the lineup. It’s not just his athleticism, but also his talent. And he has a hunger to be good and a great deal of confidence. ... He’s got the makeup, physically and mentally, to have the potential to play even beyond the college level. He’s got that kind of freakish ability.”

Johnson, who grew up also playing soccer, football and basketball, narrowed his choices to schools including UNC Greensboro, Alabama, Tennessee and Wake Forest. But it was the kind of nurturing environment of Appalachian State and first-year coach Billy Jones — similar to what he has known at Westchester — that cemented his commitment to the Mountaineers, who tied for the Southern Conference regular season title last year.

“I wanted to find that same environment, that same sense of: I want to get you better; I don’t really care about wins, but wins are going to result in you getting better and your development,” Johnson says. “I wanted to find a program that would help me get better. Coach Jones, Coach (Michael) Rogers and Coach (Matt) Payne, they showed me those qualities — that they want me to get better and will push me to get better.”