MUNDELEIN — During a baseball tournament in July, Carmel junior Cooper Johnson gave spectators a “wow” moment.
Johnson, a 6-foot, 195-pound catcher, was playing for his Top Tier summer travel team at Perfect Game’s World Wood Bat Association National Championships in Emerson, Georgia. With a runner on first base, the Top Tier pitcher used a high leg kick and threw a fastball down and in to a right-handed batter. The runner on first took off in an attempt to steal second.
“He [Johnson] caught it, released it, and threw the runner out by 3 1/2 feet,” Top Tier coach Griffin Phelps said. “The [runner] had an amazing jump. It’s the kind of play you sit back and say, ‘Wow, I have a special talent on my hands.’”
With Bradley-bound Ian Kristan at catcher for Carmel last season, Johnson played second base as a sophomore in 2014. He had a good season, earning all-ESCC honors.
A few months before the high school season, Johnson impressed with his arm behind the plate. At a December 2013 showcase at the Max complex in McCook, Johnson worked out in front of a few dozen college coaches.
“I was off the radar,” he said. “I wasn’t talking to any colleges [before the showcase]. That was my breakout. I threw well and hit well.”
One of the coaches in attendance was Kansas State’s Mike Clement, and he communicated with Johnson often after the event. Johnson, who according to Prep Baseball Report has recorded multiple throws from home to second between 1.79-1.90 seconds, soon felt comfortable with Clement, who told Johnson he could play for the Wildcats as a freshman.
In July, Top Tier coach Matt Plante phoned to tell Johnson that Clement had been hired by Mississippi as a hitting coach.
“He said [Clement] wanted to remain in contact with me,” Johnson said.
Soon after the Georgia tournament, Johnson, his mother and younger brother flew to Oxford, Mississippi, for the first of two college visits. The second would be to Florida in Gainesville.
“When I went down, I had my heart set on Florida,” Johnson said. “After I went, my thoughts changed a little.”
The day after his arrival in Oxford, Johnson was taken to the upper deck of Oxford-University Stadium at Swayze Field by Rebels coaches. Inside one of the stadium’s fan suites, Johnson stared down on the field through a large glass panel.
“It was cool looking down, imagining [thousands] of fans packed into the stadium,” Johnson said. “I got excited. I felt like this is where I want to play.”
He took his scheduled visit to Florida. Nothing happened to change his mind. He was going to Mississippi. And on Aug. 2, after participating in PBR’s Future Games in Indiana, he tweeted out his decision.
“Honored to announce my commitment to play baseball at the University of Mississippi! #OleMiss #gorebels,” read the tweet from his handle, @coopj325.
In the span of seven months, the 16-year-old Johnson went from an unknown prospect to a player with a Division I scholarship offer. Johnson said there is much more to learn from his story.
“You are not as good as you think you are,” Johnson said. “You need to work hard when no one is looking. If you want to play college baseball, you have to be all in.”
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