ST. GEORGE – The golden age of American Legion baseball may have gone the way of the dodo bird, but the youth summer sports program is far from extinct.
In fact, it may be making a comeback.
For a number of years in the early 2000s, there were no American Legion teams in southern Utah. Between the different camps, club and travel teams, church and family trips and work commitments, young men just stopped playing American Legion baseball.
Five years ago, Shane Johanson decided to revive the program locally. Johanson, who has coached mainly in the Pine View area, hand selected a few Pine View kids and formed the St. George Sentinels. Before long, word got out and kids from other schools began inquiring about the team and soon the Sentinels had players from all over Region 9, plus a southern Nevada kid or two and even some players from smaller schools in the area (like Enterprise).
Johanson’s vision was simple: Give young players (they must be 19 or younger) a place to compete for the summer with a chance to be seen by college coaches and ultimately have a shot at a state championship.
“There are some tricky things,” Johanson said. “The total enrollment of the schools that the kids come from can’t be more than 5,000. That’s to ensure that the big schools aren’t stacking their teams. It’s kind of a jigsaw puzzle for us. And of course, working with kids’ summer schedules is always a tough thing.”
The Sentinels have been going strong into their fifth summer now, and a new team has emerged in St. George as well, the Dixie Pilots.
“We wanted to do our best to put a team out there and make it worthwhile for these kids to play,” said Pilots coach Danny Ipson, who is fresh off coaching the Dixie High School baseball team to the 2017 3A state championship. “There is obviously a lot going on in the summer for these kids and I get that. But we want to do our best and try and play for a state and regional title.”
The Sentinels are still generally a Pine View based team (with players this year also from Canyon View, Hurricane and Desert Hills), while the Dixie Pilots are exclusively a Dixie High-based team. The Pilots play their home games at Flyer Field, with their first home games tonight in the form of a doubleheader against Vernal.
The Sentinels play their first home game Saturday morning at 10 a.m. (also against Vernal) at Panther Field.
Both coaches of the local teams feel the struggle of the different activities and distractions of the summer.
“It’s the same thing every summer,” Johanson said. “Summers are not like they used to be when we were young. There is so much going on. We didn’t have our seniors the first tournaments of the summer and guys have places they need or want to be. Sometimes you just have to grab some of the younger kids and go out and play and hope for the best.”
The Sentinels are 6-5 overall, with all 11 games being played on the road or at neutral sites. They lost two one-run games against Pleasant Grove, including a game St. George led 5-2 going into the bottom of the seventh. The two losses dropped the Sentinels to 2-4 in American Legion South Region play.
The Pilots are 3-2 in South Region play, having swept Corner Canyon and taken a split with Pleasant Grove.
The South Region is comprised of nine teams, including the Sentinels and the Pilots as well as teams from Price, Roosevelt, Vernal, Sevier County, Helper, Pleasant Grove and Corner Canyon.
The Sentinels finished second in state last year and third in 2015 and have competed in the American Legion state tourney every year they’ve been playing.
The format for state has changed slightly this year, with eight of the nine South teams going to Helper (last year’s region champion) for the first round of games July 21. The four winners then head to state championship week the next week at Gates Field in Salt Lake City to decide a champ against the four North Region survivors.
“We want to work hard and get better so that we’re ready to make another run at a title,” Johanson said. “American Legion is a great opportunity for these guys to compete for a state championship, represent the American Legion and also give themselves some next-level opportunities they might not have gotten.”
A big 16-team tournament, the St. George Summer Classic, takes place locally starting next Wednesday. Dixie and St. George will face teams from Colorado, Wyoming and Nevada as well as non-Legion teams from Snow Canyon and Cedar City, among others. The Sentinels start it off with a game at Dixie State’s Hurst Field Wednesday at 7 p.m. against Jackson, Wyo. The Pilots’ first game is Thursday at Hurst Field against Golden, Colo., at 8:30 p.m. The tourney runs through Saturday and a champion will be crowned Saturday night.
A final note of intrigue: The Sentinels and Pilots play each other in back-to-back games in mid-July. The two local teams square off July 14 at Panther Field and July 15 at Flyer Field.
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