Pine Bluff native Claude Johnson got an opportunity to play right away when he arrived at Arkansas State last year.
Then a freshman, he came to the Red Wolves after batting .400 with four home runs and earning All-State honors as a senior for Pine Bluff High School, so Arkansas State was potentially getting an impact player right away.
Johnson saw some playing time early, but at the end of the year he finished with a .220 average in 40 at bats.
“I was disappointed in myself because I really wasn’t mature enough at the time,” said Johnson of his freshman season. “I didn’t prepare myself at the time and I wasn’t prepared for college baseball.”
Apparently Johnson did a lot of growing up between the two seasons. Now a sophomore, Johnson became an important part of the Red Wolves’ (32-21, 19-9 in the Sun Belt Conference) season, which saw them earn the No. 2 seed in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
“I thought the summer helped me mature,” Johnson said. “I just worked hard in the summer and fall, and I kept competing and everything worked out.”
Johnson, a third baseman, did not just make an impact on Arkansas State’s roster, but on the Sun Belt Conference. He is fourth in the Sun Belt with a .358 average in 176 at bats and is tied for the league lead with 18 doubles. Johnson also had a .430 on base percentage, which is eighth-best in the conference.
After a bumpy year last year, Johnson said he was not surprised he was able to bounce back and be one of the best batters in the conference.
“I feel like I am a good player and I feel like I work hard enough to be where I am,” Johnson said. “Things just went my way this season and it may not always be like that.”
Even after a tough year, Arkansas State coach Tommy Raffo did not lose faith in Johnson and turned to him again this season.
“When someone like coach believes in you, it helps you,” Johnson said. “They all believe in me and I am starting to believe in myself. It’s a great feeling and it contributes to the success I have.”
Johnson did not slow down when the SBC tournament started on Wednesday. In the Red Wolves’ first game, Johnson went 2 for 3 with an RBI and two runs scored as ASU beat Middle Tennessee State 12-1.
The win over MTSU only continued a turnaround season not only for Johnson, but also the Red Wolves. Last year, ASU finished 13-16-1 in the conference and 27-31-1 overall.
Now Arkansas State has a chance to make it to the NCAA tournament.
“We don’t feel like other teams believed in us when the year began,” Johnson said. “But we believed in ourselves and knew we had a good team and win some games, and it has worked for us.”
The Red Wolves lost to Troy 8-3 in the second SBC tournament game, but will play for the conference title with a 12-4 win over Florida International on Saturday.
Despite being so high in the conference in average, Johnson did not earn any Sun Belt Conference accolades. He was not too disappointed by that at all, though.
“I mean, everyone wants accolades, but I don’t really play the game for that,” he said. “I play to win and hopefully go out there every day and play well. The other guys on the list were deserving and maybe I get on it next year.”
With only five seniors on the roster, this is not just a one-year run for the Red Wolves.
“We are definitely young and we have a lot more games to win, this year and next year,” Johnson said. “We are a great team and we are young and will be back next year.”
While Johnson had a lot better sophomore season than freshman season, it does not mean he is going to become content with where he is at.
As he learned last year, there is a summer full of improvement ahead of him again.
“I can improve on everything,” he said. “Defensively, offensively, always room for improvement. Whenever we are done playing, improve on everything.”
Johnson hopes a trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Seriesw is in the picture before he has to start improving for next year, though.