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Rick Houston | | May 27, 2015

Don't think twice

  Johnson turned down multiple DI football scholarship offers and is now making a title run with Henderson St.

CARY, N.C. -- Claude Johnson had a decision to make, and it was a big one.

On the one hand, the high school quarterback could accept one of several Division I football scholarships he had been offered, the biggest of which was from Ole Miss. Take it, and he could be playing on Saturdays in the Southeastern Conference, widely regarded as the best -- and toughest -- in all of college football.

Or Johnson could continue playing baseball. He’d already left basketball behind somewhere around his freshman year of high school, so his call came down to just two sports. Which one should he choose?

“I loved both of them,” Johnson said. “I guess I was a little bit better at baseball, but I was pretty decent at football, too. I enjoyed both.”

Pretty decent at football might be understating it just a little, because DI offers don't come easily. There is a very definite allure in the lights of Friday nights, as well as in coming home to a new batch of recruiting letters. His was no easy decision to make.

“There’s nothing like playing a game of football -- the energy that the crowd brings, the intensity of the game,” Johnson added. “[Being recruited to play football] was awesome. I think it really prepared me for a lot of different things in life.

“Getting a lot of recruiting attention, it gives you a lot of confidence in yourself as a player. It let me know I’m a good player and that I should never get down on myself because I know I can play ball.”

In the end, Johnson chose to play Division I baseball at Arkansas State. Even then, he hadn’t given up entirely on football and made it known that he’d like to try to play both. That was a no-go with the baseball coach there, so he settled in to hit .259, with 48 hits, nine doubles and eighteen RBI.

Johnson has blossomed since transferring to Henderson State, leading the Reddies this year in doubles, home runs, RBI and slugging percentage coming into this week’s NCAA Division II Championship. He’d reached base in an incredible forty-four consecutive games before going 0-4 at the plate Monday in Henderson State’s loss to Catawba.

To see it all wind up here in the DII championship means the world to Johnson, especially after a season in which weather delays have caused Henderson State to play all but ten games on the road.

“We have a great team, a great group of guys,” Johnson said. “It’s a special feeling, because not everybody gets this chance. I just want to soak it in and play some good baseball. [Playing on the road] has really just showed how resilient our team is.

“When you don’t get to play at home, it’s pretty tough to win games. It’s been a struggle, but we can’t say that we’re not happy it played out that way, because it really helped our team become the guys we are today.”

Henderson State won 4-0 against Angelo State in its opener Saturday, but then fell to Catawba 5-1 Monday. Next up is a return match against Angelo State Wednesday, the game time moved up to noon because of expected weather that afternoon.

What it all means is this. For Johnson, playing in the DII championship is vindication that the decisions he’s made have been good ones -- baseball over football, Henderson State over Arkansas State.

“Sometimes you look back on things and think you probably didn’t make the right decision,” Johnson said. “When push comes to shove, I think I made the right decision. It’s worked out well for me. I’ve had a great career, a great a time playing baseball.

“I’m just happy to be playing with the guys that I’m with now. I transferred from a DI school to here. At first, you don’t know if the decision you’re making is good or bad. We won some games. It’s been a great journey, a great experience. I couldn’t be happier.”

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