Hobbs Johnson is back in the rotation

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UNC junior left-handed pitcher Hobbs Johnson.

With back-to-back victories against Stanford in the NCAA Super Regional, the North Carolina baseball team extended its season on June 11, 2011, dogpiling in right field at Boshamer Stadium to celebrate its fifth College World Series berth in six years.

Following the win, the Tar Heels left for Omaha. But then-freshman Hobbs Johnson was watching from home.

At the end of the semester that spring, coach Mike Fox called the left-hander into his office. Johnson’s grades had slipped — so much so that he couldn’t pitch anymore for the Tar Heels.

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This is the fifth of a week-long series previewing the baseball season.
Monday: Infield
Tuesday: Pitching Staff
Wednesday: Freshmen
Thursday: Outfield
Today: Seton Hall preview

Johnson was left to grapple with a lost opportunity.

“I knew that it was a situation that I put myself in and that the only person to blame was me,” he said.

“I was happy for all my friends and fellow freshmen … But I’d be lying if I told you if I wasn’t depressed and heartbroken sitting there watching them.”

He watched his teammates compete at the game’s highest level from his own apartment that summer, which was more disappointing for Johnson than he could even explain.

But fortunately, he had something to keep himself occupied.

A successful summer school session was his only ticket to get back on the team he so desperately missed, so Johnson spent the following months focusing on his studies and going to classes.

It paid off. When his grades came in, Johnson learned he’d made four As.

“He’s been on top of it ever since,” said Matt Roberts, catcher and Johnson’s freshman year roommate. “It’s just an incredible story.”

Having proven his commitment to the squad and to bettering himself, Johnson was let back on the team in time for the following season.

Johnson wasn’t just a different person in the classroom. He was also a whole new man on the baseball field.

During his freshman season, Johnson threw just 3.2 innings in six appearances, allowing four hits.

In North Carolina’s 46-16 campaign last year, after returning from his brief absence, Johnson was a much bigger contributor. He made 22 appearances and earned a spot in the starting rotation late in the season.

Opponents hit just .179 against him, the lowest average on the team. In the final game of the regular season, Johnson allowed no hits through seven and one-third innings in a 6-2 win against Virginia Tech.

“It’s like anything else,” Fox said. “When you get a second chance sometimes, you really make the most of it because you realize how close you were to not getting it.”

Now, Perfect Game’s preseason No. 1 will rely even more on its comeback kid. Johnson will likely rejoin Kent Emanuel and Benton Moss in the weekend rotation to start a season that already includes lofty expectations for the Tar Heels.

But having a constantly improving Johnson in their corner makes Emanuel feel so much better about living up to them.

“He’s a stud. He doesn’t get hit,” he said. “Hopefully this year will be a little bit of an encore.”

Johnson, who committed to North Carolina after his sophomore year at Rocky Mount High School, is on track to graduate on time from the school he grew up dreaming of attending.

Before that happens, though, he could be due for a whole lot more distinctions on the baseball field.

When the first pitch of the season is thrown out today, all the Tar Heels in the Boshamer Stadium dugout will be glad that the anticipation is finally over — Johnson included.

“I appreciated it, but not to the extent that I do now,” Johnson said. “Now, it’s just like I got a second chance, so don’t blow it.”

Contact the desk editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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