Cooper Johnson (Judy Fidkowski / Pioneer Press)

True freshman Cooper Johnson will start at catcher for Ole Miss on opening day

It was a beautiful day, bright sky overhead at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field, sunshine that looked like it was summer, and yet a cold northern wind blew down from the direction Cooper Johnson hails from. It was in the mid-40s but that wind surely made things feel much colder.

It was early afternoon on Friday, February 3, as Johnson bounded out of the dugout and offered a handshake and a “Hello, I’m Cooper Johnson” to the assembled media. Some of us had met him. Others had not. All were intent listeners as Johnson, only a true freshman, spoke like a seasoned veteran of baseball and college.

“It’s so great to be out here on the field,” by some accounts last year the nation’s best high school catcher said. “We’ve been blessed with some good weather. The energy is high in the dugout and locker room, and everyone’s so ready to go. It’s two weeks away, people are working hard, and we’re excited to be out here.”

So what about this chilly day in February, the Mundelein, Ill., native from metro Chicago, the windy city of course, was asked?

Smiling, Johnson said, “I’m always asking the guys here ‘When’s the cold coming?’ because back home once it’s late October, it’s sweatshirt and coat all the time. I talked to my mom (Thursday) night and it was like five degrees. It’s cold up there.”

But the temperature is the farthest thing from the minds of the players, especially Johnson, who is competing with three others for the catcher role. Sophomore Nick Fortes, redshirt freshman Carson Klepzig, and Thomas Dillard, another true freshman, give Ole Miss great talent and depth behind the plate.

“I’ve never been on a team with so many talented catchers – those are three very, very great and respectable catchers,” Johnson said. “We all work together all the time every day, and we get to push each other. There’s still competition, but we stay friendly and we stay friends.”

Offensively, Johnson said the fall was good because he didn’t do anything except go out and have fun, not press, and just play.

“I thought I did pretty well in the fall considering my hitting career throughout high school. Obviously that was the biggest question mark,” he said. “I think I came in here and finally I wasn’t pressing and was able to just honestly go out and have fun. The fall I had the most fun I’ve had playing baseball in so long. I got to play with a bunch of teammates and be around a bunch of great guys. But I wasn’t pressing to hit. I was just coming to the ballpark and having fun.”

Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said Friday that Johnson will start on opening day at catcher against East Carolina on Friday, February 17. Bianco also said “this is the most catching depth we’ve ever had.”

Of Johnson, he said, “He’s very talented but one of the things that’s remarkable is just the work ethic and the hunger to be better. From the day he stepped on campus he’s had that. He’s worked very hard with (hitting) Coach (Mike) Clement. I’m proud of his steps forward offensively. And defensively. That’s why you come here, to get better, and he’s done that.”

Johnson’s bio from Ole Miss, in part, reads this way: “…Selected in the 28th round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds. Among college and high school players, rated the No. 56 draft prospect by and No. 68 draft prospect by Ranked the best player from the state of Illinois, including the No. 39 recruit by Perfect Game. Tabbed a 2016 Rawlings-Perfect Game first team All-American and first team Central All-Region. Won a gold medal at the 18-and-under World Cup as a member of Team USA. Played in the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game at Wrigley Field. Named a top-500 prospect by Baseball America. Made the 2016 Rawlings Top Prospect list. As a senior, named the conference’s defensive player of the year for his superb play behind the plate. Earned all-state honors in 2016. Three-time all-conference and two-time all-area honoree. Hit .342 over his high school career, adding 33 doubles, 33 runs and 88 RBI. Competed in the 2015 Area Code Games. Earned 2015 Underclass All-American first team honors after hitting .382 as a junior...”

Johnson said there is no substitute for practicing outdoors, which here in the South he can do this time of year.

“Last weekend and getting outside for the first time (since last semester) is a little bit different. Not giving excuses, but you go out there and you’ve been inside catching pens and haven’t seen many really live arms. You get outside the first weekend and it’s a bit different, a little bit of an adjustment. But my body’s feeling good, and I’m seeing the ball well behind the plate and hitting-wise. So I’m think I’m ready to go.”

The path for players normally goes something like this: get recruited, commit, sign, arrive at UM after senior year of high school, go to summer school and through workouts, through fall ball and the Omaha Challenge and the offseason, then return for second semester workouts and preseason practice. By then it’s nearly time for the season, and the enthusiasm and anticipation for finally playing in a real college game is off the charts.

“I was sitting in the locker room today,” Johnson said, “sitting in my locker for about five minutes, and I was thinking it’s been since my sophomore year (of high school) that I’ve been waiting for this opening day. I made my verbal commitment and I signed my letter of intent and I came to campus (last summer). When you look back day by day it seems like a long time, but it’s flown by. I’m just so ready, so ready.”

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