Tyrese Johnson will remember the final pitch of the 2022 JUCO World Series for the rest of his life.
Standing in deep right field, he watched as Cowley County Community College leftfielder Janson Reeder swung at a 0-1 offering from Central Arizona College pitcher Drew Sommers.
Johnson, a Dawgs Academy product, ran forward as it appeared like the bouncing ball might make it between first and second base.
However, Ryan Ball was able to grab it and tossed it towards first baseman Kiko Romero, who had to make a quick adjustment to his right to make the scoop and preserve the 4-2 Vaqueros win.
Instead of having to make a play, potentially to home plate as a runner on second would likely have tried to score, Johnson threw his hat and glove in the air.
“It was a sense of relief,” the Calgary native told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “All that nervous energy finally got let out and I was able to run out and celebrate with my team.”
The victory not only capped off an incredible season for Central Arizona, but gave the speedy outfielder some closure on what’s been a tough couple of years.
CHANGE OF PLANS
Coming out of Okotoks, Johnson was getting himself ready for his first college season at South Suburban College near Chicago.
However, his plans were put on hold when, one day, he broke the hamate bone in his left hand while he was swinging a bat.
“It’s a pretty common injury in baseball,” Johnson said. “I was out for about four months before I got surgery and then the recovery was about a month and a half.”
The injury, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, led to a longer layoff than he was expecting. Johnson ended up re-classing, de-committing from South Suburban, and eventually got an offer to head to Central Arizona last fall.
It was a long time without playing the game he loves.
“My confidence wasn’t necessarily that high going into my freshman fall,” Johnson admitted. “I just kind of toughed it out, kept doing me, trying to save myself no matter the situation and no matter where I was.”
A PLACE IN HISTORY
When Johnson arrived at Central Arizona, he knew he was heading to a school that expected to win.
The Vaqueros had won the JUCO World Series back in 2019 with a roster that featured another Dawgs Academy product, Clayton Keyes.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Johnson says the goal from the beginning was to get back to the tournament, and he did his part to contribute.
After starting the year as a role player, he was leaned on in a big way when the playoffs began, and finished the year with a .340 batting average with two home runs, 23 runs batted in and nine stolen bases in 56 games.
One of his biggest hits came in the semi-finals against Walters State, where he hit a game-tying solo home run to lead off the sixth inning. Johnson’s name entered the record books as it broke the record for the most home runs during an entire World Series.
“It’s pretty cool, honestly,” Johnson smiled. “I was just trying to help the team out, so it’s pretty special.”
The Vaqueros would go on to win that game, setting the stage for the championship game against Cowley.
AN ACE IN THE MAKING
While he didn’t find himself in the final game, another Dawgs Academy product had become a workhorse for Central Arizona, mostly out of the bullpen.
Near the end of the season, Matt Wilkinson entered the starting rotation and was expected to stay there until he was called upon to keep the Crowder College bats at bay on May 29th.
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Coming in during the eighth inning, he did exactly that until giving up a walk-off home run to Adamo Stornello in the bottom of the 10th inning.
“That one hurt,” the 6-foot-1, 265-pound hurler told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “But after that, when I got the ball again, I was saying that I can’t think about that – I just have to go out and do my thing. And I did.”
Wilkinson was called up on to start against Wabash Valley College on June 2nd, where he allowed six hits and struck out seven over six innings of work.
While Wilkinson didn’t get the decision, he became the benefactor of a walk-off homer off the bat of designated hitter Dusty Garcia in the bottom of the ninth.
That put the finishing touches on what was a scintillating season for the Ladner, B.C. product, as he posted a 5-2 record with two saves and a 1.87 earned-run average in 19 appearances, striking out 85 batters in just 53 innings of work.
FRONT ROW SEAT
Despite having gone through the ups and downs of the tournament to that point, nothing could have prepared “Tugboat” for what he would have to sit through in the final.
“It was crazy,” he stated. “I felt like I was pitching and I wasn’t even out there.”
With 10,703 fans sitting on the edge of their seats at Suplizio Field, the two teams battled with superb pitching and defensive performances.
It was a nail-biting affair, and when the final out was made, Wilkinson says he remembers running out onto the field before the euphoria settled in.
“It was something we worked so hard for since we got there in the fall,” the southpaw said. “It’s been our goal and we achieved it, which is pretty cool.”
Both freshmen say they were grateful to take moments during the celebrations to soak in the atmosphere and realize they had achieved what every college player dreams about.
Wilkinson says the championship meant everything to him. He is now turning his attention to winning a Western Canadian Baseball League championship with the Okotoks Dawgs, before heading back to Central Arizona to defend the title.
Admittedly though, he’s a little speechless about how his 2022 college season went.
“We achieved our goal and, yeah, it’s still hard to put into words,” Wilkinson said, taking a moment. “Just…a national champion.”
Looking back on it, Johnson is introspective about the experience as he also had his family in attendance during the final.
They had seen him through some tough times, and thought it all paid off when his mother, father, and sister got to see him on top of the world again.
“They’re always rooting for me and there’s never a doubt in their mind,” Johnson said. “So that leaves very little doubt in my mind – it just lets me go do my thing.”
He persevered and, as he gets ready to suit up for the West Coast League’s Kamloops NorthPaws this summer, learned that he can be a game-changer.
“It gives you the confidence to trust yourself and trust that you can play this game at a high level against some of the best players in the country,” Johnson concluded. “It’s truly special.”