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Reno High grad Johnson finds a new home

April 25, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO -- Drew Johnson knew he wanted a change of scenery. But when he looked at the collegiate baseball map, he didn't see cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge.AdvertisementPacific Pawnbrokers

Just two years removed from a storybook 2004 season, when he returned from a broken jaw to lead Reno High to a state title, Johnson was struggling to establish himself on a loaded Nevada team where his future role seemed uncertain.

He started looking elsewhere.

Amid a frantic search to find a program where he could pursue his professional baseball aspirations, the University of San Francisco surfaced on the suggestion of a summer league coach.

Johnson, a redshirt junior USF outfielder, has yet to put up the type of offensive numbers expected from the prodigious prep slugger. But after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in preseason workouts last year, both he and his coaches believe his career is back on track.

A high-ceiling prospect because of his rare combination of power, speed and aptitude, Johnson credits the improbable westward journey with revitalizing his career.

"I can't go to school in San Francisco after growing up in Little Old Reno," Johnson recalls telling himself when he first seriously considered the move. "It's just so completely different."

Rigo Lopez suggested Johnson consider USF's budding program when he was playing in summer ball in Hawaii 2004. Lopez is a former USF assistant coach.

A few months later, Johnson traded a comfortable bed at home for a couch in a teammate's living room -- where he lived for several months -- and his familiar Reno surroundings for an environment that from demographic, and cultural standpoints, couldn't be more different.

"It was a very big culture shock," Johnson said. "There can't be a foreign country stranger than San Francisco."

Johnson is one of a steady stream of area players that have made the 200-plus mile westward pilgrimage to USF in recent years -- a group that includes Scott Cousins (Reed), a Florida Marlins outfield prospect, and Reno alum Lucas DeLong, Kevin Anis, Chris Genung, Steve Molof and Garrett Luippold.

Luippold, a current USF teammate, was on the freshman team when Johnson was a Reno senior on a 2004 team that sent 10 players to play at some level in college or professionally, including Jeff Schoenbachler, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Minnesota Twins that year.

"I just remember (Johnson) being an 'everyday' guy, a guy who'd get a hit or somehow do something to help the team," Luippold said. "He would always find a way to contribute."

Johnson made the ultimate contribution that year, hitting a game-winning grand slam in the top of the seventh inning of a 6-5 Northern 4A Regional championship game victory over Reed.

Johnson's heroics -- he also pitched the last two innings and was credited with the victory in his first pitching appearance in more than a year -- were especially striking because he missed half the season with a freak injury. Johnson suffered a broken jaw earlier in the season when he was struck in the face by an errant throw by an Elko catcher while scoring on a wild pitch during a nonleague tournament.

Johnson soon emerged as an inspirational figure, returning to practice within a week of the accident with a facemask covering his wired-shut jaw, and cheering on teammates before rejoining the team, Reno coach Pete Savage said.

"The team rallied around Drew all year and then in the biggest game of the year, when we needed a (grand-slam), the ball found him, and when we needed (him to pitch), the ball found him," Savage said. "It's incredible how that works sometimes."

But a year later, Johnson found himself in an altogether unfamiliar role. Although he'd never experienced prolonged failure at any level, Johnson struggled mightily, going 1-for-20 his freshman year at Nevada, with his lone hit coming in the last game.

Johnson had a much more productive sophomore season, albeit in a similarly limited role, belting five homers in 69 at-bats. But he hit just .203.

And with elite-level outfield prospects David Ciarlo and Matt Bowman ahead of him, Johnson realized he'd probably never see enough live pitching to enhance his development.

USF coach Nino Giarratano, who'd scouted Johnson since he played at Reno, said it was apparent the slugging outfielder wasn't right at Nevada.

"With the kinds of tools he has, when you don't get a chance to play everyday, it's tough," Giarratano said.

Sidelined again

Eager to put his tools to use when he got to USF, Johnson suffered another major setback shortly after arriving in San Francisco, aggravating a shoulder injury that had been bothering him for years when he dove for a ball in practice. Johnson underwent surgery to repair his dislocated left (nonthrowing) shoulder.

Johnson is batting .247 (18-for-73, four doubles, one triple), with 12 RBIs, and Giarratano thinks he's starting to regain the powerful swing that still intrigues professional scouts. The coach cited several quality at-bats, including a run-scoring single Johnson scorched in a 10-8 loss to Houston on March 16, among several recent positive developments.

"He's close, I think he's really close to having a breakout year," Giarratano said.

Giarratano said he's been just as impressed with Johnson's makeup as his raw ability. Even during the darkest days when Johnson was shut down last season, he supported his teammates, and did what he could to stay sharp.

More importantly, Giarratano said Johnson exemplifies his program's emphasis on academics. The accounting major has a 3.9 grade point average.

Giarratano's praise comes as no surprise to Savage.

"He's got all the tools," Savage said. "He's always been a very well-rounded player, but what sets him apart from a lot of players is his character, on and off the field. He's one of the most outstanding young men I've ever coached."

At home in the city

Johnson cites the influence of his parents, Steve and Camie, and Savage, for instilling in him the importance of balancing sports and school he believes has helped him overcome the injuries and struggles.

Johnson thinks he's grown from all of it. And to hear him tell it, these days he takes nothing for granted.

"I don't hold onto my failures as much as I used to," Johnson said. "I know what it feels like to have a season-ending injury... I remember when I had the opportunity to get back on field in the fall, I know I was a lot more excited than a lot of the other guys because I knew what it was like to spend three months in a sling."

Johnson said he still has great respect the UNR program, and remains friends with several current players and coaches from his former team. But he has no regrets about leaving.

"I'd never in a million years saw myself going to school in San Francisco, but it's turned out to be the best thing I ever did.

"It was a tough adjustment, but I love it now."