HELPER – Shane Johanson has done a lot for American Legion baseball in Southern Utah.
Five years ago, he revived the dormant program and got young men excited about summer baseball once again. He’s coached and managed the St. George Sentinels the entire time, sacrificing a huge chunk of his free time and all his energy in the blazing Dixie heat. And he’s provided opportunities for several young men to earn scholarships and chances to play at the collegiate level by letting them by seen by next-level coaches.
But one thing Johanson hasn’t done – yet – is bring a state American Legion title to southern Utah. The coach hopes to rectify that situation beginning Thursday in Helper.
“We’d really like to win a state championship and go on to regionals,” he said. “Every summer, it’s a different challenge and we’ve had some difficulties this summer. We started off the summer terribly.”
The Sentinels, a mashup of players and former players from Hurricane, Pine View, Canyon View and Desert Hills, started the year 2-5. Led by guys like Jagun Leavitt (Pine View), Payton Higgins (Canyon View), Nick Horsley (Hurricane) and Trey Allred (Desert Hills), they have gone on a tear lately, winning 15 of their last 20 games – and that includes an 0-4 trip to California for a national tournament.
“The California trip was tough … and we’ve had different guys missing at different times,” Johanson said. “But we feel like things are really coming together. Even with the horrible start, we finished as the No. 2 seed in the Southern Region.”
The state tournament has been broken down into two separate weeks this year. The first week, beginning Thursday, will have the two regions (North and South) playing in separate locations to determine the top four teams from each. The eight remaining teams then will meet Jul. 26-29 to determine a state champion.
Pleasant Grove is the top seed in the South and gets a bye on Thursday. The PG team went 14-2 in Southern Region play, defeating the Sentinels in a pair of one-run games back in early June in Utah County. Pleasant Grove will play its first game of the Southern tournament Friday at 8 p.m. against the winner of Helper (10-4, third seed) and Sevier (5-11, sixth seed), which is tonight at 8 p.m.
Thursday’s early game pits Vernal (10-6, fourth seed) against Roosevelt (6-9, fifth seed) at 2:30 p.m.
St. George (12-4, second seed) then dusts off its cleats and battles Price (3-11, seventh seed) at approximately 5:30 p.m. Thursday. All games are at Gardner Field in Helper.
Friday’s schedule pits the Vernal-Roosevelt winner against the St. George-Price winner at 5:30 p.m. and then Pleasant Grove against the Helper-Sevier winner.
Elimination games also take place and are important as the top four teams will advance to Gates Field (Kearns) for the rest of the state tourney.
“Basically, a team needs two wins to move on to the rest of state,” Johanson said. “We feel like we’ll get there and we are also excited at another chance to get back and face Pleasant Grove again.”
Johnson was also excited about the return of some of the players his team has missed at times this summer. Logan LaFemina joins Higgins as one of the players who has a year of college baseball under his belt. Allred, who led the team in batting average most of the summer, is back after missing the final couple of series. And Leavitt, who has played only as a position player this summer, continues to heal from a sore back and should be available to pitch in the state tournament.
That gives the Sentinels a very strong pitching staff with Leavitt, Alec Flemetakis, Tobie Swenson, Higgins and Michael Lacy. LaFemina has also pitched as of late, as well as Jaiger Crosby.
Horsley has been the power hitter this summer for the Sentinels, socking five homers and seven doubles while leading the team by a mile in RBIs with 29 (second-place Weston Sampson has 10 RBIs). Higgins leads the team with an astounding .676 on base percentage. He’s batting .500 and has also drawn four walks and been hit by seven pitches. Allred leads the team with 25 hits, including three triples
One note: The first-year Dixie Pilots finished 9-6 in American Legion South Region play and would have entered postseason as the fifth seed, but due to other player commitments for the new program, the coaches elected not to participate in the state tournament this year.
American Legion Southern Region Tournament
Ernie Gardner Field, Helper, Utah
Thursday, Jul. 20
G1: Vernal (4) vs. Roosevelt (5), 2:30 p.m.
G2: St. George (2) vs. Price (7), 5:30 p.m.
G3: Helper (3) vs. Sevier (6), 8 p.m.
G4: Pleasant Grove (1) vs. bye
Friday, Jul. 21
G5: Loser G1 vs. loser G2, 3 p.m. (elimination)
G6: Loser G3 vs. bye
G7: Winner G1 vs. winner G2, 5:30 p.m.
G8: Winner G3 vs. Pleasant Grove, 8 p.m.
Saturday, Jul 22
G9: Winner G5 vs. loser G8, 10 a.m. (winner is three seed)
G10: Winner G6 vs. loser G7, 12:30 p.m. (winner is four seed)
G11: Southern Region Championship: Winner G7 vs. winner G8 (winner is one seed, loser is two seed)
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