Building ChampionsWhen Sam Houston State baseball head coach Matt Deggs arrived on June 27, 2014, it was quickly apparent what the first order of business would be.

“Bryce Johnson was a guy I was recruiting at UL,” Deggs said. “I developed a close relationship with him and his family. My first day on the job here, it was my number one priority. Within the first week of being here, we signed Bryce Johnson.”

The Cypress product was a dual-sport athlete in high school playing both football and baseball. In fact, for a while, it was a good possibility Johnson could be putting on the pads for Coach K.C. Keeler. Instead, the former wide receiver chose another gridiron to showcase his abilities.

“I was with my dad and my mom when we came down here for my official visit,” Johnson said. “We were talking with Coach Deggs and we were talking about what was best for me. It just came to the point where I said I think I need to go baseball.”

The choice has turned out to be a good one. Nearing the conclusion of his sophomore season, Johnson has upped his career batting average to .340. This season, he’s clubbing a .367 tilt and his 77 hits rank him ninth in program lore with at least three regular-season games and the league tournament remaining.

“My goals were to play my freshman year,” Johnson said. “I had a great fall and everything was falling into place. Being an asset and being able to contribute made me more confident. This year, I wanted to feed off of last year. I did pretty well but at the end of the year and was able to contribute more.”

In a span of a few months leading into his sophomore campaign, Johnson decided it was time to add another dynamic to his game. The right-hander wanted to master hitting from the left side of the plate.

“During his exit meeting at the end of last year, we both agreed he should go back home and work all summer on switch hitting,” Deggs said. “To be able to do that in such a short amount of time takes an unbelievable amount of athleticism. He’s a special athlete. It doesn’t surprise me.”

This season, Johnson is hitting a whopping .405 from the left side of the plate. Earlier this season against Stephen F. Austin, he hit two home runs – one from each side of the dish.

“My senior year, I knew I could do it but I just never worked on it,” Johnson said. “When I got up here my freshman year, it was never in my mind. I got in the cages when we first got up here in the fall and just started swinging left handed and the next thing you know, I felt more comfortable with it.”

The biggest unteachable part of Johnson’s game is undoubtedly his speed. He has stolen 20 of 23 bases this season –  second in the Southland Conference – and has been a hawk in center field. At Lamar a weekend ago, Johnson began one game, beating an infield grounder, sliding in to first base before robbing three hits away from Cardinals batters.

“I don’t know if I’ve coached a player who could cover as much ground in center field as he has,” assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Lance Harvell said. “The jumps that he gets on reading swings or adjusting to a ball in the air, those are things that people don’t think of. In the dugout, when a ball is hit anywhere between the gaps, you know Bryce has a good chance of going and getting it. I’ve been around guys that are just as fast but Bryce has an innate ability to make it look effortless. That’s like a big leaguer.”

While Deggs made a splash signing Johnson during his first week on the job, it did not take long for the favor to be returned. Making his collegiate debut against national-power Wichita State, Johnson hit in the three hole and played left field, finishing 2 for 4, reaching base three times and driving in one run.

“The most common thread that will run through freshmen is the speed of the game,” Deggs said. “At times, it can get too fast for young guys and I’ve never seen it once get that way for Bryce. He is always in tune with the pace of the game. It’s always at a speed he controls.”

Under the current staff, the Bearkats operate with a wolf pack mentality. For Sam Houston, each player in the pack has his role and when every individual embraces and understands their responsibility to the unit, great things can be accomplished.

“Bryce is a quintessential pack player,” Deggs said. “He has speed and strength. Not just that, Bryce is totally selfless. He is always up to the task of whatever you ask him to do. If it’s bunt, even though he might have three hits on the day, he’ll lay down a bunt. There’s countless times I have Bryce take pitches during at-bats and he never says a word. Players see that and feed off of it.”

Like a majority of players on Sam Houston’s squad, Johnson hails from the greater Houston area – northwest Houston specifically. While playing with Cy-Ranch High School, he was named all-district and all-state. For Harvell, signing Johnson was a game changer.

“It definitely turns people’s heads,” Harvell said. “With Bryce coming from a program like Cy-Ranch that has won multiple state championships very recently, that catches people’s attention. They know that high school program and who Bryce is. That northwest Houston area, we recruit a lot of players from there, and they know Bryce because they played with or against him.”

As impressive as Johnson’s game is, his aspirations are equally as high. The center fielder has his sights on joining 53 other Sam Houston players who have been selected in the Major League Baseball Draft.

“I want to make it to the top,” Johnson said. “I’ve sat down with my dad and we’ve talked I can’t tell you how many times about what it would be like to make it to the top. That’s why I try to come out every day and compete. To be able to get into somebody’s organization and make an impact is my main goal.”

In all likelihood, Johnson’s ability, from his speed on the bases, to switch-hitting ability and tenacity in the outfield, will land him an opportunity. In the meantime, as he glances over at the Bud and Joan Haney Diamond Room’s wall – Sam Houston’s baseball facility – of pro players, he knows where he wants to be.

“I look at those guys who I played and they put in the work just like I did,” Johnson said. “If I can just put in the work like they did and make it on there like they did, that would be awesome. I know they are out there grinding trying to make it to the top. I see that every day and it’s like, I want my photo up on that wall.”

Deggs, who has spent times around countless future professional players in his stints as an assistant at Arkansas, Texas A&M and Louisiana, knows major league ability when he sees it. What “it” is may be harder to clarify but it sure translates well.

“He has it,” Deggs said. “In quotations, he has ‘it.’ Sometimes there is no explaining ‘it’ but Bryce has it.”

 

With 19 freshmen and 26 newcomers on this year’s squad, Johnson has served as a mentor to many younger players, helping fine-tune their games at the collegiate level. For Johnson, part of that growth has come with the help of strength and conditioning coach Trevor Williams.

 “Trevor has been awesome,” Johnson said. “He works with us as players how we feel off of our body. He’s there every day. If we need something, he’s there. The way we do our workouts it’s awesome. He’s been a big help for the program this year.”

 To reach their full potential, student-athletes like Bryce Johnson must put in large amounts of time and energy into training. The athletic department strives to provide Bearkats with an enhanced experience, requiring state of the art resources and facilities. Help continue Building Champions by directly support the Strength and Conditioning Enrichment Fund.