Sports

Tahoma’s 10th man | High school baseball

Connor Johnson’s No. 31 jersey hangs in the Tahoma baseball team’s dugout  during an away game on April 7 against Kentridge. Johnson died in a car accident Feb. 15. - Eric Mandel
Connor Johnson’s No. 31 jersey hangs in the Tahoma baseball team’s dugout during an away game on April 7 against Kentridge. Johnson died in a car accident Feb. 15.
— image credit: Eric Mandel

The No. 31 jersey always hangs inside the Tahoma dugout on game day. It switches colors along with the team for home and away contests.

Before jogging out to the diamond, starting catcher Matt Thompson kisses his fingers and touches the stitching. He whispers things such as, “I need you this game” and “This one is for you.” It seems to help.

“After the funeral I felt the emptiness,” Thompson said. “Then I put on my Tahoma jersey and Tahoma hat and stepped on the field. I felt filled up. It put the fear of death away from me.”

Connor Johnson, 18, was driving on Highway 410 to work his part-time job at the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort on Feb. 15, when his pickup hit black ice and skidded into a ditch outside Greenwater in Pierce County. Authorities said he died instantly.

As a relief pitcher, Connor Johnson didn’t play every day, but he always had an impact on the games he entered. Now that he’s gone, teammates say his spirit and jersey have been the impetus for every win.

“Connor still lives through Tahoma baseball,” said Thompson, who caught for Johnson since seventh grade. “We’re gonna make it known he is still here.”

Adversity is known to either tear a group apart or make it stronger. In Tahoma, it has been the latter. Thompson and teammate Jake Lambrow said the 2013 squad consisted of nine individuals trying to win games. This year, it’s a team.

“It made the team closer together,” said Lambrow, a junior starting pitcher. “It gave purpose to the team.”

It’s not fair to call the Tahoma baseball team’s 7-3 start a Cinderella story or a group of misfits that came together in sadness; the veteran group finished 10-6 in the SPSL North division in 2013 and expected to be even better when the season started. But when the devastation struck, baseball took on a new meaning. The group decided to dedicate their season, and the school’s quest for its first ever baseball state title, to Johnson. Thompson and Lambrow said Johnson was the inspiration and constant motivator behind the team’s 4-0 conference start, though they dropped their last two contests.

Thompson said he and his teammates are playing with “no regrets.”

“Even though he’s not here, he’s still our driving force,” Thompson said.

Connor, who stood more than 6-foot-3-inches tall and growing, was an independent and quiet

independent and quiet teenager. His father, Craig Johnson, called him “a man of few words.” In fact, Connor didn’t tell his parents he’d even applied to Washington State University until he was accepted and was asking for money to pay the registration fee. He’d planned to study criminal justice.

“It’s a fear of every parent and it’s a nightmare,” Craig said. “...We were still buying more shoes. He was growing.”

Craig and his wife Julie were in South America when the accident occurred. Craig said the city rallied around the family at its most dire moments.

“Maple Valley has just been unbelievable,” Craig said. “The support that the whole community has given - it means so much to honor him.”

Connor came from a brotherhood of Bears — his siblings Kyle and Heyden played on the Tahoma baseball and football squads in 2006 and 2009, respectively. Craig said Connor’s adoration for baseball developed before high school ball and even the pony league for youngsters, back when Craig would hit rocks with a stick.

“He loved baseball,” Craig said. “He played it pretty much his whole life.”

The Johnson family has started a memorial fund in Connor’s name. Craig said he is looking to give to organizations that could help youth in families that can’t afford to play baseball.

“We should be able to help a few kids out,” Craig said.

Head coach Russ Hayden knew Connor as a happy and quiet young man who “didn’t have a mean bone in his body.” Hayden spoke to his players about the tragedy on the first day of tryouts and during cuts. After 22 years as coach, he said it was the first death of a player he’s ever deal with.

“Life is more important than a baseball game,” said Hayden, who earned his 300th victory on March 2. “I’ve had a lot of injuries, but nothing as severe as that.”

Beyond the hanging jersey, the team huddles before and after each game for a dedication and cheer: “C-J on three…” The “CJ” initials also grace every Bears practice t-shirt.

Beyond the extra motivation, Hayden called this one of the deepest teams Tahoma has had in a long time — with only one loss among the freshman, JV and varsity squads. Hayden said the freshman team could compete with most JV groups. Meanwhile, the JV team threw two no-hitters last week and also won a game 40-0.

But even those triumphs are put into perspective. Hayden said another of the Bears’ baseball players fell asleep at the wheel on the first day of daylight savings time and hit a telephone pole. Though that teammate walked away from the accident, the team isn’t taking the game, or life, for granted.

“Being out here is a privilege,” Lambrow said. “We have to go out and love every minute of it.”

 

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