Former Encino Crespi standout Tyler Johnson has played a big role in leading… (Lynne Sladky / Associated…)
Four years ago, Tyler Johnson took a leap of faith. He had never heard of Stony Brook University, didn't know it played Division I baseball, and when he found out the school was some 3,000 miles away from his home in Chatsworth, he didn't exactly jump for joy.
But he went anyway. "They really wanted me," he said. "Going across country was tough, but it's the best decision of my life."
Johnson has become the winningest pitcher in Stony Brook history. He was the first of a growing number of Southern California recruits to say yes to the Seawolves from New York's Long Island, who play UCLA on Friday at 2 p.m. PDT in the opening game of the College World Series in Omaha.
"It's the hardest thing for a kid to do, take a 3,000-mile trip and grow up in a heartbeat," Johnson said.
Johnson, a senior right-hander and 33rd-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics, has a record of 12-1 this season with a 1.94 earned-run average. His record over four years is 36-10. He threw a three-hitter in Game 2 of the Baton Rouge super regional to beat Louisiana State, 3-1, making 127 pitches.
Johnson was 20-0 during his three years at Encino Crespi High, pitching for Coach Scott Muckey. His father, Chris, spent 22 years coaching baseball at Los Angeles Valley College. He was taught to be a pitcher, not a thrower. But recruiters weren't thrilled with his velocity, or lack thereof.
"Their assistant coach came out on a trip and hooked up with some of the coaches around here, watched him, liked him and made him an offer," Muckey said.
Said Stony Brook Coach Matt Senk: "We went out to Southern California to clearly open up our recruiting base. We went to what was advertised as an under-the-radar showcase. Tyler was someone who caught our eye. Tyler was interested and intrigued by perhaps getting away from what he's known all his life."
Johnson admits he encountered culture shock with college life in New York, from the unpredictable weather to riding a train — a first for him — after flying in to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
What he discovered was an invigorating, different environment.
"I love the place," he said.
Two other former Crespi players, Josh Mason and Michael Hubbard, have joined him at Stony Brook. One of the team's starting pitchers, sophomore Brandon McNitt, is from La Puente Bishop Amat High. And two more Bishop Amat pitchers, Daniel Zamora and Kenny Ball, are set to arrive at Stony Brook this fall.
"You can say I opened the door, but they made their own decision to take that journey, and it's been a great decision for all of us," Johnson said.
Stony Brook (52-13) has become a national story, being only the second No. 4-seeded regional team to make it to the College World Series since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1999.
"It's going to be fun to show people what Stony Brook is about," Johnson said.
Johnson, Mason and Hubbard will have a reunion in Omaha with UCLA's second baseman, Kevin Williams. All were teammates at Crespi.
Their journeys have been different, but no one's complaining. They've made it to college baseball's greatest stage.