Dec. 4, 2014
By Sean Tenaglia `16
It’s hard to imagine a University of Notre Dame baseball team without Forrest Johnson. The graduate student, who has developed into a leader on and off the diamond, has been a mainstay behind the plate over the past two years and also served as a team captain for the Irish last season.
You might be surprised to find out, then, that there was a time when Johnson wasn’t sure if he would ever get on the field.
“Around my sophomore year I wasn’t getting any playing time,” Johnson says. “I felt I had hit rock bottom with my academics and everything. At that point, I didn’t know what my future held for me.”
With so much uncertainty clouding his mind, Johnson decided to sit down with Irish head coach Mik Aoki. Their discussion proved to be the turning point in his Notre Dame career.
“I came in as a developmental player who couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel at times,” Johnson says. “Coach Aoki and I had a conversation where I really figured out I wasn’t where I needed to be as a player. I had a lot of development to do and I just had to get to work.”
From that point forward, Johnson did not look back. After not recording a single plate appearance in his first two years in South Bend, he became the team’s everyday catcher as a junior in 2013. That season, he started 54 games for the Irish, hitting .207 and driving in 10 runs. He also recorded a solid .986 fielding percentage behind the plate.
During the 2014 campaign, Johnson upped both his batting average and fielding percentage to .248 and .990, respectively. The Hudson, Ohio native added a home run and 15 RBIs in 41 games played. Prior to his senior season, Johnson was named a co-captain of the team along with fellow senior Sean Fitzgerald. This honor was yet another defining moment in his career for the Irish.
“Although it’s not always about the recognition, I think that was a really big moment for me,” the graduate student says. “Being asked to be our captain was huge for my confidence. I was very humbled when I was voted captain, but it wasn’t about the title.”
Johnson admits that his senior season did not go exactly as he had hoped. The Irish struggled out of the gate in their inaugural season as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and finished with a 9-21 record in ACC play. As one of only three seniors, Johnson felt a heavy weight on his shoulders, yet embraced his leadership position.
“Last year we had a very thin senior class (three), so it was definitely a tough burden to take on,” Johnson says. “There was a lot of pressure on me to establish myself as a leader last year, but that was something I always wanted.”
In May, Johnson, who has been active in the Rosenthal Leadership Academy and SAAC during his time at Notre Dame, graduated with a degree in marketing. After a challenging senior season and seeking to continue his academic career, the Irish catcher decided to return to Notre Dame for a fifth year.
“There were a lot of things that went into my decision,” Johnson says. “From an academic standpoint, I knew that the MBA program was something I wanted to do all along. Although I wasn’t really able to afford it right away, I was fortunate enough to be able to come back and enter the program.
“On the field, it’s kind of a redemption year for me. Last year, I put everything I had into it, but I feel like as a team, we just didn’t perform the way we needed to. To have an opportunity to come back and play at this university for a fifth year is something I’m really thankful for and I’m definitely going to take advantage of it. We’re ready to get back at it and get going this year.”
As the elder statesman of the team, Johnson will continue to serve as a vocal leader for the Irish. Nevertheless, he looks forward to embracing a new role on a much more experienced team this spring.
“This year, I think my role is really just to try to empower others to take leadership positions,” Johnson says. “It’s not about me being in the spotlight, but it’s more of a collaborative effort to get other guys involved.”
The player who arguably has worked the closest with Johnson is his fellow catcher, sophomore Ryan Lidge. The two catchers split the duties behind the plate last season and Johnson believes that their friendly competition helps to make them both better players and better teammates.
“In my five years here, I haven’t competed with someone and enjoyed the experience as much as I have with Ryan,” Johnson says. “We’re both very competitive people, and that definitely drives us to get better and make our team better.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to support each other. Whether it’s me or him out there on a Friday night, it’s really nice to have someone I can compete with and support as well.”
Johnson and Lidge will be catching for several familiar faces, as both the junior and senior classes return several members from last year’s pitching staff. However, the Irish will be without two seniors, Fitzgerald and reliever Donnie Hissa, who both graduated in May after leading the 2014 rotation.
“It’s going to be tough without Sean and Donnie because they were two studs for us last year,” Johnson says, “but we have a big senior class of pitchers and plenty of juniors, sophomores, and freshmen who can step on the mound right away and make a difference. From a catching standpoint, I’m excited to know that we have guys who can fill a bunch of different roles.”
The Irish wrapped up fall ball with the annual Blue-Gold Series at the end of October. After a productive and competitive session of fall practices, Johnson looks forward to the challenges that await him and his teammates this spring.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Johnson says. “I’m really looking forward to taking on that next challenge. It was an awesome fall, but we have a lot of work to do. Every team in the country is feeling good at this point. This is really our time, individually and collectively, to get ourselves to where we want to be. Every guy will have to take it upon himself to make himself better, as well as the guy next to him.
“Last year, we saw the level of competition and what it takes to be a good team in the ACC, and I think we understand that now. There is a bit of a learning curve. It is an amazing conference and a new level of baseball, so when it comes down to those pressure situations, it’s all about having that `it factor.’ We need to go out there and slow the game down and take every pitch one by one. I’m really excited to get a little redemption this season and emerge as a competitive team.”
When the Irish take the diamond in February to start their 2015 campaign, Johnson will be an essential leader, both behind the plate and in the dugout. Coach Aoki now has watched the graduate student’s transformation over the course of four-plus seasons.
“Forrest has really grown into being a leader,” Aoki says. “I thought he was good with it last year, and I think he has been great with it to this point in the fall. He’s a really intelligent kid who really cares about our program and our university. I think he got a little introspective and did some self-evaluating to figure out where he could get better, and he has gotten better at those places.
“On the field, I think he’s played at as high a level this fall as I’ve ever seen him play. His defense has always been a strength of his game, and I think he’s progressed with that. I think he’s really matured into a veteran hitter, so offensively he’s really improving. It is invaluable to have him back with our team, regardless of his contribution on the field.”
No matter what happens this spring, Forrest Johnson has much to be proud of. His road through South Bend has not been smooth, but he would not have it any other way.
“I never would have pictured myself in this position,” Johnson says. “It’s been an unbelievable ride. To have the opportunity to come back and get this amazing degree while being a part of something bigger, is really a dream come true.”