They have a couple of legitimate pitching arms, three or four hitters capable of launching any pitch out of the yard and a handful of guys who, through osmosis, gained the experience of winning it all by hanging out in the dugout in 2009, when Lawrence High won the Class 6A state title.
But the main reason the LHS baseball team will be a contender this postseason is because of their most unassuming player.
His name is Ross Johnson. He’s the Lions’ senior leadoff hitter and center fielder. He’s the most experienced player on the field and the most accomplished off it. A 4.0 student with as many academic awards as athletic, Johnson brings a bevy of things with him to the ballpark every night. The most notable is his unflappable attitude.
“He clears his head pretty well out here and just plays his game,” senior teammate Aaron Gile said. “He shows us what we’re supposed to do and how it’s supposed to be done. He’ll be one of the guys they bring back to give a speech or something.”
Definitely. But don’t expect to hear many of those while he’s still playing. Running his mouth is just not Johnson’s style.
Wednesday, Johnson will lead the Lions into regional play in Manhattan, where they will face Washburn Rural at 2 p.m. Two victories — the title game is at 7 p.m. — would put LHS in the state tournament next week. A loss will end the dream shared by seven LHS seniors — Johnson, Gile, Jake Johnson, Jon Pederson, Alex Laughlin, Trent Sheppard and Corbin Francisco — many of whom were there to witness the elation in 2009.
The stakes are high. These guys have been talking about this opportunity since watching those who came before them hoist the trophy in 2009. Ross Johnson, a junior varsity player that season, wasn’t in uniform that day. But he was in the dogpile. Being left off the postseason roster didn’t stop him from joining the fun. One morning, he called LHS coach Brad Stoll and asked to join the team breakfast. The next day, he asked to ride in the van. The Lions kept winning. So Stoll made it mandatory that Johnson be there.
“We gave him some kind of job to do,” Stoll said. “We had to. He was our good-luck charm.”
Today, Johnson represents more than that. He’s a big part of Lawrence’s chances, which is good news for the Lions because he’s the kind of player who will do anything for his team. Nothing is beneath him. He’ll work an at-bat for a walk or smile as he’s plunked in the back by a pitch. At the same time, you can’t ask too much of him. He’s as good as it gets on the basepaths and routinely delivers diving grabs or clutch base hits.
“The great thing about Ross is, he does it when you need it most,” Stoll said.
That time is now, though you’d never know it from talking to him. Johnson doesn’t show pressure, and he rarely feels it.
“I know all these guys want it, too,” said Johnson of his teammates. “You can’t put too much pressure on yourself or you won’t be able to do anything. We’re just trying to have fun with it.”