116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Coe’s TJ Johnson reflected on the last five years.
The fifth-year senior has numerous memories filed from all the practices and games. There have been wins and losses, celebrations and disappointments. Postseason tournaments and victories. Don’t forget the myriad bus rides, hotel stays and relationships that will extend far beyond their playing days.
“It couldn’t have been a better five years,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t trade those in for anything. There have been a lot of great teammates that are friends forever. I had great coaches along the way. I’ve also have been a part of some of the best teams in the Coe baseball program, which is just amazing.
“Of course, it’s a blast. … a great experience.”
Johnson and the Kohawks will attempt to produce a few more memorable moments when fifth-seeded Coe takes on No. 4 Luther to open the American Rivers Conference baseball tournament Thursday at Daniels Park, beginning at 11 a.m. The rest of the tournament, including the first-round game between No. 3 Nebraska Wesleyan and No. 6 Wartburg also at 11 a.m., will be held at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Buena Vista (18-6, 26-12) is the top seed, while Loras (15-9, 31-9) is the No. 2 seed. The tournament champion will earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Division III regionals. Coe’s last conference tournament title came in 2015.
Johnson is closing in on the end of a career that has garnered all-conference honors and All-America designation from the American Baseball Coaches Association. The former Cedar Rapids Prairie prep recognized the finale creeping closer, but would like to extend the season a little longer.
“Obviously, you see the days on the calendar start getting check off, games getting checked off, less and less games and practices,” Johnson said. “It’s sinking in that (Thursday) we play Luther at home and that is the last game we’ll play at Daniels Park.
“Everyone loves to play baseball. No one wants to see it come to an end, especially after five years of tons of practices and tons of games. All the tons of hours you put into the game. Everyone hopes you can go on a run at the end of the season.”
Johnson is a jack-of-all-trades. A Swiss Army knife. The Kohawks utility player has made an impact over the years as a shortstop, pitcher and an offensive dynamo. He has been a reliable performer, expecting to play in his 150th career game and make his 146th overall start.
Johnson leads the Kohawks with more than 31 at-bats, hitting at a .305 clip. He is first with 40 hits and has a team-high in RBIs (54) while being second in runs (26).
“He’s a dynamic player,” Coe Coach Steve Cook said. “You can’t replace him. You just hope to develop the next player like him. His biggest attribute is his growth and development. He came in as a pure athlete. He had to develop into the baseball player he is now.”
Injury has prevented him from taking the mound as much as he did a year ago, when he led the Kohawks with 10 wins, 12 starts and 79 innings pitched, posting a 2.28 earned-run average. He still has managed a 3-2 record despite tearing his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right elbow in February.
“I’m really proud of him,” Cook said. “This is maybe his most successful season (given what he has endured).”
Cook said he doesn’t know the percentages, but added that they can’t be high for players demonstrating the courage and perseverance to continue to play and inspire his teammates.
“I’ve been dealing with that,” Johnson said. “Then, again, you find ways to work around that. If my role changes, just be the best I can in the field or helping my team out as much as I can in the dugout or at the plate. That is how I’ve had to change this year.
“Just finding different ways to win and help teammates. That is how things have changed this year.”
Uncertainty surrounded his role after the injury. Coe moved him to the outfield, trying to limit the number of throws. When his arm responded to that, he was tested back at shortstop. Johnson and Cook discovered he could handle the throws across the infield. He eventually returned to the mound by the end of March.
“He’s as tough as they come,” Cook said. “He has a high level of heart to compete. He was not going to be deterred when he was told by the doctor.
“We know what he’s done is amazing.”
Luther (21-18, 13-11) won two of three against Coe (17-19, 12-12) in the regular season. Cook said the key will be effective pitching and good defense. The Kohawks will need to stay focused each moment and take advantage of the opportunity in front of them.
“It’s always a challenging part of the year,” Johnson said. “Everyone knows what’s on the table. It’s do or die, in a way.
“Everyone in the conference is good this year. The competition is going to be tough, but there is no one we can’t beat in the conference. We’re all optimistic, looking forward to the tournament and hoping we can give it our best.”