Johnny Cassandra is the quiet one. He knows it.
But the West Forsyth senior pitcher made quite the statement this season in being chosen by the county’s coaches as the 2014 Forsyth County News’ Co-Pitcher of the Year.
The right-hander went 5-3 this season with a 2.50 earned-run average. He allowed just 37 hits in 47 2/3 innings with 50 strikeouts to help the Wolverines reach the Class AAAAAA tournament.
And yet Cassandra wanted his biggest impact to be off the mound.
"I wanted to be a team leader because the past couple of years we’d been short on leadership and that had kind of showed during the end of the season," Cassandra said.
So Cassandra made a point to jettison his reticent side. He checked in on how teammates were doing. He talked more during games and practices. When he noticed a teammate make a mistake, he offered encouragement.
"You always want to make sure nothing gets to [teammates]," Cassandra said. "If they do something wrong, you’re right there to help pick them back up."
West’s season tested Cassandra’s leadership, for it turned out to be a tumultuous four months.
The Wolverines entered the season with lofty expectations. They were a top 10 team with pitching depth and a dangerous top-half of the lineup.
West validated those expectations early on as it got off to an 11-2 start. The Wolverines won nine straight games at one point, including perhaps Cassandra’s finest start of the season – a one-hit shutout in West’s 14-0 victory over Centennial.
"I felt like everything was on and everything was working for me and that nothing could stop me," Cassandra said, "and nothing really did until the last inning. I just felt I was on, and I wanted to repeat that performance every game."
Instead, West started to collapse.
After defeating South Forsyth on March 26, the Wolverines lost six of their next seven games. Once a top 10 team, West was now in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. The Wolverines entered the final week of the regular season needing to win out.
That’s when Cassandra felt his leadership was needed the most.
"I felt like I needed to start picking it up and showing that I’m a leader," he said, "and not just the quiet guy on the side that just does what he’s told."
Indeed, Cassandra gave a signature performance against rival North Forsyth in a 9-3 win. After allowing the Raiders to tie the game 3-3 in the second inning, Cassandra didn’t allow another run in seven strong innings with eight strikeouts.
It was the kind of situation Cassandra said he might have crumbled under last season. A year ago, he came to West after a season at Blessed Trinity in Roswell. Cassandra had a strong start, but his performance diminished later in the season.
The difference was in his head.
"When I got into [tough] situations, I would just start falling apart and it would show," Cassandra said. "[Teams] would get more hits, and it just went downhill.
"I wanted it to be just me and the catcher, not what [players and fans] were saying. I just worked on it, and it was working out for me, so I kept doing it."
So that’s the new mentality Cassandra will take with him to Georgia College and State University next season. He’ll join a Bobcats team that went 35-17 and made the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional despite a 5.82 team ERA.
Cassandra hopes he can make an immediate impact at GCSU.
"Freshman year, maybe I can put a name out for myself and get the coaches to trust me to pitch a lot of innings," he said. "As I continue through my career hopefully become a leader there."
Now he knows how.