Sherman Johnson might have gained the reputation as an uncommonly patient hitter at Alonso High, but he couldn't be too picky about which pitch to swing at when it came to his college choice.
He didn't receive a single scholarship offer.
"No one really talked to me," he said.
Perhaps college coaches couldn't see past his 5-foot-10, 150-pound frame. Perhaps the dazzling pitching arm of a teammate overshadowed his impeccable glove. Whatever the reason, Johnson eventually ended up staring at just one offering, such as it was:
A chance to walk on at Florida State.
"Growing up, I was a Florida State fan. Always," he said. "That was my dream, to play baseball at Florida State. I came to a couple of camps, and I guess they liked what they saw. A little bit. They didn't have any more scholarship money but they said, 'We'll give you a chance to try out.' I just took it from there."
He took some swings. He earned a roster spot as a walk-on as a freshman last season, but has emerged this season as a standout everyday player for the Seminoles (42-17), who play Central Connecticut State (33-21) on Friday afternoon in NCAA region play in Norwich, Conn. The other teams in the double-elimination tournament are host Connecticut (47-14) and Oregon (38-22).
Johnson is one of four players to have started all 59 games, predominantly at third base, hitting .330 (third on the team), with 13 doubles, six home runs and 47 RBIs (third). He has 42 walks, including five in one game to tie a school record, for a robust .447 on-base percentage. His .954 fielding percentage is one reason FSU goes into the postseason with its third-best defense in school history.
"There's no question," FSU coach Mike Martin said recently, "this is a special story."
Although Johnson, 19, a geography major, had some moments last season (his first collegiate hit was a grand slam, which resulted in countless text messages and voice mails from family and friends), he truly began writing that improbable tale last summer in the Valley Baseball League in Virginia. He batted a solid .310 for the Covington Lumberjacks in 46 games.
"What he did was he got up there and got comfortable," Martin said. "He faced very good pitching and wasn't intimidated."
Covington coach James Conrad realized from Day 1 that Johnson would be a force for him. He liked his smooth swing and was particularly taken by his discerning eye at the plate.
"He had the best concept of the strike zone of any 18-year-old kid I've ever seen," he said.
But Johnson said he benefited most by being around older players, who helped him cross a threshold vital for the development of any athlete — instead of believing he could play with the best college had to offer on a daily basis, knowing that he could.
"I got their perspective on everything and they were giving me encouragement," he said. "It got my confidence where it needed to be."
"He came in and he was kind of shy," said Junior Arrojo, a teammate of Johnson's at Covington who is a senior infielder at Florida International, which opens NCAA play against Texas A&M in Coral Gables. "But I saw it then. I saw that he could play and I told him every day that he could play. He said he was doubting himself that he could start at FSU and I kept telling him, 'Hey. Not only are you going to start, you're going to do good.' "
After Johnson earned a spot on the south roster for the Valley League All-Star Game as well as a spot in the Mid-Atlantic Summer Classic All-Star Game, folks couldn't miss his newfound level of self-confidence.
"We knew at the end of the summer he was going to go back there and do a phenomenal job," Conrad said. "There was no question among our coaching staff of that."
Still, Martin needed to see that for himself. He realized the youngster had potential, but he didn't really expect him to be more than a capable backup this season.
Johnson, who has added nearly 30 pounds of muscle since his prep days, then wowed the Seminoles coaches in the fall; so much so that they moved star junior Stuart Tapley, a two-year starter at third base, to designated hitter to open a spot for Johnson.
"He basically said, 'I'll show you that you are going to put me in the lineup,' " Martin said. "And he did. He earned himself a spot in the lineup. … And the rest is history."
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347.