Northwood star, pro baseballer Johnson teaches new generation

Posted 8/2/19

SILER CITY — The name Benji Johnson is legendary at Northwood High School as a four-year letterman, catcher and slugger on the baseball diamond.

Johnson was called one of the top hitters in the …

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Northwood star, pro baseballer Johnson teaches new generation

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SILER CITY — The name Benji Johnson is legendary at Northwood High School as a four-year letterman, catcher and slugger on the baseball diamond.

Johnson was called one of the top hitters in the ACC while at the University of North Carolina, helping lead the Tar Heels to within an eyelash of a national title on two occasions with a pair of College World Series runner-up finishes in 2006 and 2007.

He later played seven years of professional baseball for the Atlanta Braves organization, the Anaheim Angels, and others, and has caught numerous major league pitchers including Hall-of-Famer John Smoltz.

On July 24, he brought that experience to Siler City and offered a clinic to bring professional-level skills to the next generation of ballplayers.

Johnson came to Bray Park to give his 16 students — between 8 to 12 years old — some of the skills needed to become a better catcher. Clinic attendees came from all over the state of North Carolina and other states, including Maryland.

“I have a few different things that I work on, like receiving, timing, rhythm of timing with that, blocking,” Johnson said. “I like to get to a place where they really understand that they’re trying to control the ball, so they control the game and not just knock the ball down.”

He also focuses on throwing, another key part of the catcher’s game, as part of building a complete ball player.

“I think my philosophy with this age group of 8-to-12-year olds is building a solid foundation,” he said. “I help them understand that their foundation is important for them down the road, and this is the stuff they’ll use for a long time.”

Johnson’s history in Chatham County includes time at Northwood High, where he lettered in the sport while achieving academic honors. After attending Carolina and high rankings in the college leagues, he spent time in baseball’s Major League.

His experiences give him a unique perspective to teach important lessons that otherwise aren’t available for these kids.

“The experiences that I’ve had over the last 15 years since high school and the things that I picked up from playing in college, and playing pro ball, and some insights I guess that I have in the way that I train,” Johnson said. “I guess my philosophy is probably just different than what others may teach, just hearing a different voice and maybe teaching different skills.”

His students worked out in the heat to improve the skills that they use each time they play the game.

“I learned about blocking,” Chase Wojcio, 10, said. “I play in the little league, and I’m learning how to catch better, to be a better all around catcher.”

Dalton Coffey, 11, enjoyed the clinic also.

“I love to play the game,” Coffey said.

Johnson’s class was for all positions, because his students will likely play many positions at this age.

His emphasis Wednesday was on being a catcher, one of the leadership positions in baseball. He stressed the importance of strength, stamina, and defense, but the offensive side of the plate got a lot of attention too.

When in the batter’s box, the difference between pro batters and the amateur is clear, according to Johnson. He demonstrated to his students how professional players start their swing from the legs immediately, getting strength from the ground up, rather than waiting for the last moment to turn.

Each student took a turn at the plate, getting a critique on batting skills, and afterwards, Johnson put each of the students through an individual training exercise.

Defensively, the catcher has to be able to throw to each base with power and quickness. The throw to second base covers the most distance and is the most frequent for catchers, and this was another prime area of focus by Johnson in the clinic.

“First we did two throws to second, just to see what they look like throwing, then give them a word of this is what you need to work on and focus on,” Johnson said. “Then we did some drills when they were ready.”

This is an area that sees a lot of improvement in his clinics, he said. But there are a wide variety of very specific things to work on to improve one’s game, according to Johnson.

“Number one is game speed, getting used to the game as it gets faster. With catching specifically, I think it, the blocking part is hard because you have to overcome getting hit with a ball,” Johnson said. “ At this age they’re getting comfortable with that, once they get over that hump, then they’re ready for the advanced stuff.”

There are a lot of areas that are tough for students to be able to move up in the leagues, but he did have advice on this.

“I think for catchers, specifically, I think it’s a very rewarding position,” Johnson said. “If they’re looking for something where they get to be in a leadership role, and be in charge and develop that part of themselves as a person, I think catching is a very good position for young guys to play. But again it’s getting over that hump of getting hit by the ball. I would say give catching a shot because of the leadership part and life skills from it.”

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