After having spring hopes dashed, American Legion gives high school ballplayers a chance to play ball

ST. GEORGE — After the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) canceled spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes were left with no season and a very different year than they were expecting. With the American Legion baseball season kicking off, high school athletes have been given a second chance at what resembles a regular season.

Cedar at Dixie American Legion baseball, St. George, Utah June 17, 2020 |. Photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News / Cedar City News

The UHSAA suspended all spring sports on March 16, beginning a roller coaster ride through possibilities. Would there be a season? Would it be a two-week break or would spring sports possibly get pushed back into the summer?

The possibilities were endless, but when it was announced that the season would be canceled, the seniors and athletes lost their season.

Now insert the American Legion summer baseball league. Normally, summer baseball is more focused on development and repetitions to keep baseball players in the swing of things, but the league has turned into the only season that the seniors and the rest of the athletes will get.

The season mimics that of the UHSAA sanctioned season. There are various regions around the state and then there is a state tournament and a state champion.

“It’s been good for our boys,” Hurricane baseball coach Shane Johanson said. “It is not the same thing but it’s as close as we’re going to get. It’s nice for that, it makes it official. We’re playing for something and there’s standings. This year, there are enough teams down here that we’re able to play each other and we have our own region to play games in, so I think that’s made it exciting for the players.”

Cedar at Dixie American Legion baseball, St. George, Utah June 17, 2020 |. Photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News / Cedar City News

The season has already seen some exciting matchups, including a Hurricane versus Dixie extra innings game and another tight contest that saw Cedar come back from being down big early to get the game within one run in the final inning.

The competitive atmosphere is there but Johanson said it is hard to compare the American Legion season to a regular season.

Regardless of the comparison, some of the seniors get a chance to find some closure with regard to their final season, and those who are returning next year still get to play some baseball.

“I think so,” Johanson said of American Legion giving the seniors some closure. “It’s hard to compare but I think that initially going into it, guys just wanted to play. Some of our seniors had already gotten jobs and weren’t sure how committed they wanted to be. I think for each of them in their own way, it’s therapeutic for them to be able to come out and play out some semblance of a senior season.”

Going back to the competitiveness of the league, each team seems to be taking their own path through the season. Some teams are playing the season with the goal of making the state playoffs and competing for the state title, while other teams are out there to get repetitions and develop their players after having a long hiatus from the diamond.

There’s a middle ground between letting your seniors play meaningful games that they missed out on and allowing the younger players in the program an opportunity to develop and show what they are capable of.

Cedar at Dixie American Legion baseball, St. George, Utah June 17, 2020 |. Photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News / Cedar City News

“We’ve had some young kids step up all summer long for us,” Cedar head coach Eric Fieldsted said. “That’s big for us, having kids like that step in and compete. We give the seniors their opportunity to come and play. A couple times we say, it’s their turn, come and have a seat on the bench after four or five innings. We’re going to give them an opportunity here to see what they can do so that we can develop.”

Hurricane’s Johanson echoed the same sentiment. He loves having the seniors out there playing but also has to allow some of his younger players the opportunity to get much needed time against varsity-level competition.

In terms of Cedar’s mindset and drive in the American Legion season, Fieldsted said he is not sure what they want to do with the season. He has not had a conversation with his players but he said he is looking to develop, play and have an experience as a team.

“If we go to the state tournament and have a chance to go compete there and play some more games, we’ll make some more memories,” Fieldsted said. “We’ll see what happens, that’s kind of where we’re at.”

For Hurricane, they are in it to win it. Johanson said they came into the summer season with big goals and they are playing every game to win. For instance, Hurricane was down two runs to Desert Hills at home when the sprinklers on the field came on. Hurricane wanted to wait for the sprinklers to turn off so they could finish the game but because it was so late, Desert Hills decided to take the forfeit instead of waiting.

Cedar at Dixie American Legion baseball, St. George, Utah June 17, 2020 |. Photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News / Cedar City News

Some teams are just more invested than others.

Johanson also spoke about the fulfillment that competitive baseball games bring to not only the seniors but the team as a whole. It gives the feel of a UHSAA season while also providing an outlet for older players, seniors especially, to take on leadership roles. Johanson characterized it as passing the torch.

“I think there’s much more of that passing of the torch that happens during the summer,” Johanson said. “During the high school season everything is about competing at the highest level and we want to win every game so you don’t really get that passing of the torch. It’s fun to see, they want to leave their legacy, they want to be able to see the program continue strong. It’s invaluable to have that kind of leadership in guys that get it, know how to play the game and care about the program.”

This is how Tanner Esplin, a recent graduate from Cedar, characterized it as well. He is thankful to be given the opportunity to play with his friends but also wants to leave the program in a good position to be better going forward.

“It’s something that I’m glad I’m able to do,” Esplin said of playing the American Legion season. “(Coach) Fieldsted has taught us to leave the program better then you found it. I came into a great program and in summer ball my sophomore and junior years, I had great seniors that were there to help me and push me to get better. That’s been done for me and I want to bounce back and return the favor.”

While the American Legion season might not be the exact same as the UHSAA season, it still gives these baseball athletes a much-needed venue to play some sort of a season. For the seniors, it allows them to gain positive experiences with their teammates – ones that were stripped from them when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of their regular season.

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