RED OAK — Entering his 21st season as a high school skipper, Jay Johnson still has just one goal — make the postseason. A goal that, on paper, seems attainable for a Red Oak Hawk baseball team that returns 15 seniors after narrowly missing a District 14-5A playoff berth last season.
Johnson has notched 361 wins to just 246 losses over his two decades leading a high school baseball team. During that stretch, he has also missed the postseason just three times in the last 20 years and lead the Palmer Bulldogs to the UIL State Tournament in 2011.
However, since arriving to Red Oak the going has not been as easy. The Hawks have missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. Since going 23-15 in 2014 the Hawks have won just 20 of their 48 games in 2015-2016 combined. To some, those numbers could be signs of lowered expectations, but that is not the case with Johnson and the Hawks.
Johnson, just has he does every season, said he has high expectations for this year’s ballclub.
"I always have high expectations. I never go into a year thinking we are going to be an average team. If you look at my past record, I go into a season and I want to go all the way. Now, in reality, is it always going to happen? Probably not, but that is my ambition,” Johnson said. “I want the kids to experience playoff high school baseball whether it be in the first round, second round, third round, or so-on because there is just nothing like high school baseball in the playoffs. A lot of these kids have never experienced that and a lot of them just don't realize what it is like and how much different it is than summer ball — the atmosphere, the memories, and the hype, I just want the guys to experience that.
“My goal is to make the playoffs. Winning district, yeah OK, but I just want to get in. In our district, if you can get in you were going to go two or three rounds deep just because we aren't your average district. In our district, two or three good teams get left out because there are so many teams that can play.”
Helping to lead the Hawks to promise land of postseason play will be first-year assistant and former minor league outfielder, Boomer Collins. Collins is also a 2008 graduate of Waxahachie High School where he helped lead the Indians to a UIL 4A State Championship appearance. Johnson credited Collins with already having shifted the mindset and culture of the Hawks thus far into the season.
"With the addition of Boomer, he has brought a lot of energy in a different mindset to our program. I am relying heavily on him and have given him free reign to run things while I'll take care of the administrative side,” Johnson explained. “I think he has probably been the biggest shot in the arm for us."
Both Johnson and Collins played college baseball at Dallas Baptist University, which has blossomed into one of the premier baseball programs in the country. With that background in place, the Hawks, as led by Collins, have taken a new approach to weight trusting and drills during practice.
"The kids are really responding to what we are doing and I think we are so far ahead of where we have been in the past,” Johnson said. “We are a lot more upbeat and positive on that aspect of the game."
Now while the Hawks do return 15 seniors, they do not all come with varsity playing experience.
There are, however, a few key cogs returning to the Red Oak machine. Ricardo Iracheta, who transferred from Sunset last year, will be one right-handed arm Johnson said he will depend on “quite often” this season. Then there is the potential for a bounce-back campaign from Jordan Trotter. The junior started at second and third base last season as a sophomore, and projects as the starting third baseman this year. However, he suffered an arm injury that cut his 2016 season short after an upset of Waxahachie.
"In fact, after we beat Waxahachie we lost three starters to injuries," Johnson said.
Right-hander Eric Johnson, one of those 15 seniors, also returns with some experience on the bump.
"He pitched well last year we just did not play defense behind him," Johnson noted. "It's going to be important for us to get experience in these practice games leading up to the tournaments and leading up to district and then hopefully into the playoffs.
“[…] We are spending a lot more time intersquading just trying to get the guys in the right positions and in the right make up and finding nine guys who want to buy into our program and be team players and not individuals. It is very important to start out well in district because if you get behind early and district and you have to play catch-up. With each game we play, if you look at our schedule, it doesn't get any easier from game to game.
“Last year we started off with a big win against Waxahachie and then we got beat a couple of times when we lost a game one to nothing when we had a no-hitter going into the sixth inning and drop a popup and then the next game we lost in nine innings to Ennis. Those are swing games. You win those two games, and you are three and one but, instead, we are one and three, and now we are playing catch-up, so it is very important to start out hot in district and be consistent.”
Regardless of how last season unfolded or what the numbers show on paper, Johnson is adamant about one thing — he just wants his Hawks to find ways to win ballgames.
"I just want these seniors to experience something positive here at Red Oak, because there's been a lot of negative stuff here at Red Oak as far as sports wise and just the morale,” he said. Baseball ends the year so if you have a good run in baseball then it kind of carries over into football next year.”
EVERY PITCH COUNTS
Johnson explained that he has never adhered to the "win at all costs" mindset, as he rarely has allowed a kid to throw over 100 pitches and return in the same week. Even if a kid or two exceeded the 100-pitch plateau the high school arm was not brought back on short rest with a chance to risk injury from overuse.
"I want to win don't get me wrong, but I am not going to put a player's arm in jeopardy to win a game," Johnson explained.
The following pitch count outline was passed during a legislative session of the UIL held Oct. 10 in Austin:
High School Pitch Count (Grades 9 through 12):
0-30 pitches—0 days rest
31-45 pitches—1-day rest
46-65 pitches—2 days rest
66-85 pitches—3 days rest
86-110 pitches—4 days rest
Junior High Pitch Count (Grades 7 and 8):
0-20 pitches—0 days rest
21- 35 pitches—1-day rest
36 - 50 pitches—2 days rest
51 - 65 pitches—3 days rest
66 - 85 pitches—4 days rest
"It's going to change the way you play the game and who you pitch against certain teams. It's going to change the way that if you use them up in one game, then he is done for the rest of the week,” Johnson said. “I think you were going to have to have a lot more arms on the bench to come in and fill in and you're going to have to rely on those lower guys to step up. And I like that because most of the time in the district of this caliber you might face a team is number one or two guys every time. But, with this new pitch count, I don't think that is going to happen. I think it is going to start depending on what happened the game before and you might start facing the number three, four and five guys. You were going to have to develop more guys to pitch. I think it is just going to change the whole game."
Red Oak officially begins the 2017 season Thursday, Feb. 23 with a doubleheader against Lake Dallas (2 p.m.) and Argyle (4:30 p.m.) in the Argyle High School Tournament.