Why Van Buren pitcher Connor Johnson remains calm as Pointers get set to play for 5A title

Leland Barclay
Special to the Times Record

Van Buren catcher Tanner Callahan went out to settle down his ace pitcher, Connor Johnson, on Saturday after he had just given up a game-tying home run in the sixth inning of the Class 5A semifinals.

Johnson, though, didn’t need settling down.

“Connor was more calm than I was,” Callahan said. “I was a little upset. ... I looked at Connor and he was like, ‘We’re alright.’ I was, ‘We are alright’.

"We still get to hit. It was a tie ball game. All they did was poke the bear.”

Van Buren answered in a big way with four runs in the bottom of the inning for a 6-2 win over Greenwood to earn the Pointers’ first appearance in the state championship since 2010.

Johnson will be on the mound one last time for Van Buren as the Pointers (26-7) play Jonesboro (31-5) at 1 p.m. on Thursday at Benton High School.

“It means a lot,” Johnson said. “I want to bring a state championship to Van Buren.”

Van Buren is playing in its first state championship game since 2010 when current coach Luke Weatherford was in his first year as an assistant under David Loyd, who retired last year. Weatherford was elevated to coach, and his expectations were immediately high for this group.

“When I first got the job, we talked about how we wanted the expectation to be winning state championships,” Weatherford said. “I wouldn’t have put that in front of them if I didn’t think it was a possibility. We knew we were going to have a pretty good team.”

More: How Sammy Seeger and his Van Buren teammates celebrated winning the 5A-West title.

More: How Haden Roark helped Van Buren achieve a doubleheader sweep against Alma.

Johnson was elevated to varsity as a freshman and pitched for three years in the 7A-West, including a start in the semifinals in 2018 against Springdale Har-Ber, before being the bell cow of the Van Buren staff this season.

For the Pointers though against Greenwood, Haden Roark’s hit hugged the line, and the speedy senior cruised into second for the stand-up double after striking out two of his three previous at-bats in the game.

“You dream about that moment, getting that big hit and driving in some insurance runs,” Roark said. “I just tried to stay calm and look for something to hit. It was a hanging curveball.”

Roark leads the Pointers in batting (.374), doubles (11) and hit by pitches (13).

The championship game will have the most dominant teams in Class 5A.

Jonesboro, which won 13 of 14 5A-East games to win its conference.

In three tournament games, Jonesboro had run-rule wins over Texarkana, 13-2, in the second round and 13-3 in the semifinals over Greene County Tech after opening the tournament with a 9-1 win over Sylvan Hills.

Jonesboro’s 35 runs came in just 16 at-bats as a team. In all, Jonesboro hit .421 in the state tournament with eight runs in the first inning altogether and 13 in the second inning.

More: Van Buren baseball team defeats Wister on a walk-off single.

“They can hit,” Johnson said. “They have guys one through nine. There’s not a hole in their lineup. They can really hit the ball.”

Johnson is 12-0 on the season with a 0.73 ERA. He has 116 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings and has yielded just 37 hits and 10 walks.

The Pointers won the outright 5A-West championship and set a school record for wins.

“It’s exciting for sure, but this is what we wanted all year,” Callahan said. “It’s like waiting for Christmas. It’s January, and you want Christmas to come back around.

"Christmas is here. We’re ready for it.”