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Bradley’s JUCO bandit: How Tyrese Johnson made his way to the Hilltop

Bradley baseball’s Tyrese Johnson celebrates in the dugout with his teammates during a game at Illinois State on March 23, 2024. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.

It didn’t take long for Tyrese Johnson to make an impact under the bright lights of the collegiate stage.

As the junior outfielder takes in his first dose of Division I baseball, he hasn’t let the pressure of coming from a junior college ruin his experience on the diamond.

“I had my first DI fall, and I’m about 20 games in this year and it’s been a lot of fun,” Johnson said.

From the great white north to the Grand Canyon state

Hailing from Calgary in Alberta, Canada, Johnson’s prep baseball career was different from his experience in the United States.

“There’s no high school ball back home, so I played for an academy actually,” Johnson said.

Johnson played for one of Canada’s top prep academies, the Okotoks Dawgs, based in Okotoks, Alberta.

The Dawgs have produced a plethora of major league talent including Andrew Kittridge, a reliever for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Alejo Lopez, an infielder in the Atlanta Braves’ organization.

During his junior year of high school, Johnson played alongside 25 Division I baseball commits. He credits his time in the academy to his success in the states.

“[It’s] a powerhouse of a place,” Johnson said. “I’ve been playing good competition my entire life so I’m prepared for it.”

Since he was situated in Canada, Johnson had a hard time getting recruited from high-caliber collegiate baseball out of the academy.

“Coming from Canada, it’s pretty hard to get DI opportunities,” Johnson said. “Coaches need to see you in person and we’re only down in the United States for a handful of tournaments or games.”

“It’s pretty tough to make those connections and build those relationships with the coaches and staff,” Johnson added.

Ultimately, Johnson chose to go through the junior college route and first play at Central Arizona College. That allowed him to immediately do what he otherwise wouldn’t have done at a four-year institution.

“You’re only there for two years, whereas at a DI or four-year school, you might not play for your first two years,” Johnson said. “JUCO gives you the opportunity to really develop in those first two years.”

Johnson thrived in his role at Central Arizona College, batting .317 with 15 doubles and 17 steals during his two years, helping his team win the 2022 NJCAA World Series.

Despite racking up the numbers heading into this past summer, Johnson was still uncommitted to a four-year college and had nowhere to go.

Bradley baseball’s Tyrese Johnson poses with his teammates holding the 2022 NJCAA World Series trophy. Photo via Tyrese Johnson/Instagram.

The journey to Peoria

Sometimes, all it takes is an opportunity.

Last summer, senior Ryan Vogel and Johnson both played on the Williamsport Crosscutters, a team from Pennsylvania that is part of Major League Baseball’s draft league. While there, the two built a strong bond playing together.

“We kind of made that connection. Me and him were close [last] summer,” Johnson said.

After last season, Bradley had a void in the outfield after departures via the transfer portal. Vogel knew about the Braves’ outfielder vacancy and contacted Braves’ head coach Elvis Dominguez.

“[Ryan Vogel] was the one that pointed it out and said, ‘Hey I saw that this guy’s leaving so you might want to take a look at Tyrese in this case,’” Dominguez said. “So then we started picking up the slack and then went after him.”

Vogel also took it upon himself to pitch Bradley to Johnson.

“He knew I was uncommitted and didn’t have a spot to go,” Johnson said of Vogel. “He was like ‘We got money for you and we’re a good place.’”

Dominguez, Vogel and the rest of the Braves successfully brought Johnson to the Hilltop. The Braves were ecstatic to learn of Johnson’s commitment on July 29.

“It’s awesome. I feel like we haven’t really had that JUCO position player in a long time here,” senior Jackson Chatterton said.

Among other things that excited Johnson about playing for Bradley was Dozer Park. It’s the team’s home field and the home of the Single-A Peoria Chiefs, an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.

“The entire fall we’ve played there and it was awesome,” Johnson said. “I love hitting there. It’s a great playing surface. It’s a professional baseball facility, so it’s gonna be one of the top ones you play in your life. [I’m] really looking forward to it.”

Graphic by Rodrigo Perez.

Success on the highest collegiate level

Since he stepped onto campus, the seniors have helped Johnson transition to Bradley and Division I baseball.

“Ryan [Vogel] and I have taken him under our wings and helped him along,” Chatterton said.

It seems to be working, as Johnson is hitting .301 with a .440 OBP and a team-leading 11 stolen bases. Johnson brings a presence to the team that they’ve long lacked.

“Tyrese just brings a different element,” Dominguez said. “He’s a kid that can run, steal some bases. He creates a little bit of havoc on the base. He’s a contact guy, he’s hitting in the three hole for us.”

“He definitely is a plus that we’ve been able to have here on our club,” Dominguez added.

A big reason why Johnson has had success has to do with his mentality. On a game day, he is known to be uber-focused and unable to be pushed off course.

“You want to stay away from him on a game day that’s for sure,” Chatterton said. “When it’s game time he’s all locked in. He’s no jokes, no nothing.”

“We actually make a joke out of him that our goal at the end of every game is to try and make him smile,” Chatterton said.

With conference season starting, the Braves hope Johnson continues to play well.

“I hope he keeps doing what he’s been doing,” Dominguez said. “I hope he keeps improving and I hope he keeps doing what he’s been doing so far this year for us because he definitely gives us a little spark.”

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