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Valley / Ventura County Sports

Back In The Swing

After period of adjustment, former Little League star Erik Johnson has regained his form this summer with West Hills-Chaminade Legion team.

July 16, 1999|MARK GOMEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years ago, Erik Johnson was the star player on the Moorpark Little League baseball team that advanced to the World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

Since then, he has struggled in his first two varsity seasons at Chaminade, adjusting to his role as a part-time starter.

Johnson hopes he has reestablished himself this summer as an offensive threat and utility player for the West Hills-Chaminade American Legion team.

He leads the team with a .526 batting average and seven home runs. In 27 games, he has 41 hits in 78 at-bats, including nine doubles and 28 runs batted in.

"Coming in this year, I really was excited, because I was a little bigger and a little older,' Johnson said. "I thought I'd be playing every day. . . . The transition has come slowly, but I'm having a good Legion season, and hopefully that will continue next year."

Johnson missed his team's opener in the District 20 playoffs because of strep throat, but returned to the lineup Thursday. West Hills-Chaminade (21-6-1) lost to Woodland Hills West, 7-3 in 12 innings, in the second-round game.

Johnson has regained the home run swing that built his reputation in Little League. He hit 28 homers in 1996 for Moorpark, including all-star games.

In his first two seasons at Chaminade, he hit only one home run. Last summer, he hit two.

"That's what I like to do," Johnson said of his improved power. "It feels good to have that swing back. . . . I'd like to keep that going."

Johnson attributes his breakout summer to playing every day. Unlike some rival Legion teams, West Hills-Chaminade does not have any high school graduates or junior college players on its roster. That gave Johnson the opportunity to crack the starting lineup.

"He's living up to all his old-time clippings," said Scott Drootin, coach of Chaminade High and the Legion team. "He's really stepped it up for the summer."

Johnson's transition from heralded Little Leaguer to developing freshman was not easy. He entered high school "a little overconfident," he said, before realizing that playing varsity baseball as a 14-year-old was more difficult than anticipated.

"That was a test," Johnson said. "It was so difficult to go from the highest level possible, from being the so-called star, where people shower you with comments, to come in as a freshman, and play with guys four or five years older than you.

"Obviously, coming in as a freshman, I didn't know the ropes or the game and definitely wasn't capable of playing it like the seniors."

His play improved last season as a sophomore, when he hit .320 while sharing time in the outfield. . This summer, he has started in the outfield and at second base and shortstop.

In addition to playing five Legion games per week in the regular season, Johnson worked full-time as a camp counselor at a Chatsworth elementary school.

Johnson's normal game day would start at home in Thousand Oaks, with him catching an 8 a.m. shuttle and arriving at work by 9:30. After working until 4:30 p.m., he would hustle to his game, change and have 20 minutes to warm up.

Despite his productivity this summer, Johnson acknowledges he needs to continue improving to reach the next level. Playing for a Division I college or getting drafted top his list.

"Once he understands how to play the game, how it should be played, he will be a force that you need to deal with," Drootin said. "He will be unbelievable once he puts it all together."

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