Ex-baseball player steps up to the plate at Merced's new high school

sjansen@mercedsunstar.comAugust 25, 2013 

El Capitan's principal, Anthony Johnson, is seen here on Aug. 19, the first day of classes at Merced's newest high school.

BEA AHBECK CASSON — bahbeck@mercedsunstar.com Buy Photo

— Anthony Johnson has handled on-the-job pressure before.

As a minor league closer, Johnson was on the mound for the Gulf Coast Nationals with the game on the line with future Major League stars like Jose Reyes and Hunter Pence stepping in the batters box against him.

One bad pitch could cost his team the game.

Johnson dealt with a different kind of pressure last week, as the principal of El Capitan High School. The new $98 million high school in Merced opened its doors to about 760 kids for the first time with the start of school.

"It wasn't nerve-wracking, but we wanted to make sure everything was done right," Johnson said. "We wanted the teachers to feel confident. I wanted to make sure everyone around me had enough support. We wanted to make sure this was a great place for kids."

As a principal of a brand-new school, Johnson is being pulled in every direction — but there he was last week, walking in the quad, interacting with the kids.

"There's never any quit in him," said El Capitan athletic director Lou Souza, who was a longtime baseball coach at Merced High. "For a guy who just turned 30, he's definitely in touch with the kids around him. Being a part of a new school is new to me and I'm sure it's new to him. From everything I've seen, the way he's dealt with everything is amazing.

"He's definitely kept his poise with everything going on around him. He's that guy on the mound that falls behind 3-0 to the hitter with the bases loaded, but finds a way to get out of it."

Although Johnson's baseball career was relatively short-lived, it was a fulfilling experience he'll never forget.

He was an outfielder and a pitcher at Jackson State University in Mississippi. The Washington Nationals liked Johnson's 94 mph fastball and signed him to a minor league contract after his junior season.

However, after two years in the organization, Johnson tore his labrum in his pitching arm. Making the change from a starting pitcher in college, pitching once a week, to a reliever, pitching just about every day, took a toll on his arm.

"Baseball was an experience," Johnson said. "It taught me a lot about being a professional, about life and about being independent. I chose to go into education over baseball.

"The doctor told me I could pitch again. I had years left on my minor league contract, but I walked away. The lifestyle didn't fit me. I like playing for the fun of it. In the minors, everybody around you was competition."

Johnson walked out of the locker room and into the classroom. He taught English and language development at Merced High for 3 years before becoming an administrator for the past five years.

Working with kids is Johnson's passion. He loves his job and he loves the opportunity he has now to work with kids at El Capitan.

"I want El Capitan to be known not for the technology, but the students we produce," he said. "We looked into their eyes on the first day of school We did presentations in all the classrooms. We told the students we expect them to demonstrate integrity, honor and passion.

"We told them when people see them out in the community we want them to be able to tell by the way they speak, by the way they dress and by the way they interact that they're a Gaucho."

Reporter Shawn Jansen can be reached at (209) 385-2462 or sjansen@mercedsunstar.com

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