Jay Johnson is passionate about his North Hall High baseball program.
He knows the Class 3A state championship series won’t be easy for the top-ranked Trojans (31-5), but he said they’re going to be supremely prepared to face No. 2 Franklin County (35-3) on Saturday at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville.
The best-of-three series starts with a doubleheader at 6 p.m. at the home field of the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers.
Potentially thousands of North Hall faithful will be able to make the short 30-minute drive for the evening games, that will stretch over to Monday, if Game 3 is necessary.
And, for Johnson, a senior center fielder, he’s ready to leave it all on the field, hoping to be a part of its second baseball state championship in school history.
“Winning a state championship would be amazing,” said Johnson, the No. 2 hitter in the Trojans batting order who carries a .390 average. “This whole team deserves it. There’s nobody in the state that works harder than we do.”
This will likely be it on the baseball diamond for the Trojans’ speedster in the outfield, who routinely makes stunning diving catches and gets the most out of every at bat.
In the playoffs, Johnson has put down three clutch bunt singles and made a run-saving, diving catch against Coahulla Creek in the first round of state in Gainesville.
Baseball has been a very important part of his life since he was a kid, but college will be devoted to focusing on academics.
Next year, Johnson will be attending Young Harris College, where he wants to plans to pursue a degree in business management, then attend law school at the University of Georgia.
So, Johnson is determined to make this state-championship weekend one he’ll never forget.
“It’s my last baseball games, which is sad, but I don’t like to play with a lot of emotions,” Johnson said. “I just really want to go out with a bang.”
North Hall coach Trevor Flow appreciates many things that Johnson brings to its program, which is playing for the state championship for the third time since 2013 and first time since winning it all in 2017.
Primarily, he respects Johnson’s ability to persevere through physical pain and be a consistently-productive member of the program, despite a painful back injury stemming from a herniated disc in his back. Johnson said the injury happened when he was pushing a four-wheeler out of mud last summer and, at the time, felt a mild pop.
However, the pain wasn’t excruciating at first.
Johnson, who had his junior season cut short when the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, said he wasn’t about to miss his senior year for North Hall.
Once preseason started, Johnson had his first major setback with an excruciating flare-up.
Immediately, he went to the doctor for evaluation. Johnson was given two options: Cortisone shots to his L-5 disc in his spine, or surgery that would sideline him for the majority, if not all, of the 2021 season.
Right away, after consulting with his family, Johnson opted for the needle injection to try and mitigate the pain, which appeared to be successful at first.
After one day back at practice, and being practically completely pain free, Johnson was optimistic that he would stave off an operation, at least until the offseason.
Quickly, the pain resurfaced and was the first time he was sidelined, requiring a second shot of medication.
His third injury required him to miss about six games early in the Region 7-3A schedule.
Flow said he was initially completely unaware of the severity of Johnson’s injury, until he saw his speedy outfielder struggling in the hallways at school and, as a concerned coach, had to ask what was going on.
Right away, North Hall’s coach could tell something was significantly wrong.
“He looked like a 90-year-old man trying to walk around,” the Trojans’ coach said.
North Hall’s center fielder assured his coach that everything was under control and Johnson said he was going to do everything in his power to be on the field for every game.
Johnson said that the worst pain from the flare-ups impacted every part of his life.
“The pain level was a 10,” Johnson said. “At my worst, I couldn’t put my pants on while I was standing up.”
However, his final season playing baseball was too important for Johnson to miss, so he’s been diligent about doing physical therapy and listening to his coaches about when he needed to rest.
Once in the postseason, Johnson had to deal with another painful back episode, stemming from the single and slide into first base in the state quarterfinal series against Pierce County.
Immediately, he was pulled from the game.
He was too important to the Trojans’ success to risk another serious injury, Flow said.
However, Johnson was right back on the field and came through with a number of clutch at bats in the state semifinals series and two-game sweep May 15 against Ringgold.
North Hall’s center fielder said he feels good this week, with only a few days remaining until the state finals.
And Johnson is positive he’ll be ready to go, hoping his last weekend playing baseball results in winning a state championship ring for North Hall.
Not only has Johnson been a major producer offensively in 2021, but was hitting .420 when the 2020 season was halted at the midway point of the regular season.
All four years, Johnson has been on varsity, his first two years used for his speed on the bases as a courtesy runner.
He also played a pivotal role in the Trojans making it to the state semifinals, when he was a sophomore, in 2019.