When the St. Xavier baseball team takes the field Monday in the first round of the state tournament in Lexington, shortstop Mike Hellmueller and second baseman Shaun Johnston will find themselves in familiar territory, albeit on a much larger stage.
Friends since kindergarten, seniors Hellmueller and Johnston have been patrolling the middle infield together since fourth grade.
Their first season in tandem at St. Athanasius School, they won the CSAA baseball city championship. Now, in their last season as teammates, they hope to bookend their careers with another championship. This time a state title.
Last Thursday they moved a step closer when the No. 2 Tigers (26-10) punched their ticket to the state tournament by edging No. 5 Eastern 4-3. It was St. X’s first Region Seven title since 1996.
Dream come true?
“(To win it all) would be a dream come true for those two,” said Tigers head coach John Jefferson, who first met Hellmueller and Johnston when they attended summer camp at St. X as sixth-graders.
“These guys still play as if it’s Little League ball. They’ve matured to a different level of the game, but they still compete as if they were kids,” said Jefferson.
Playing alongside a trusted friend is an advantage according to Hellmueller. “It’s a huge bonus. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I know where he’s going to be when I need to make a play,” he said.
A captain and two-year starter, Hellmueller carries a .340 batting average this season with 19 RBIs. He committed just four errors during the regular season and said his fielding acumen is a result of facing some harsh realities and compensating. “I’m the slowest shortstop in the state of Kentucky…but I read the ball off the bat better than a lot of people and I can break hard,” he said.
“Also, in the dugout we’ve got a guy giving signs so we know what pitch is coming and I adjust based on that,” said Hellmueller. “The whole infield talks during each at-bat and we shift to get an advantage.”
Going to Wesleyan
Hellmueller will head to Kentucky Wesleyan College next fall and Jefferson believes he is well-equipped for the next level. “In 12 years I don’t think I’ve coached a kid that has more of a love and passion for the game. He’s passionate about everything he does and…I could really see him starting next year at Wesleyan because he has that kind of drive,” Jefferson said.
Johnston is batting .328 with 18 RBIs and has only six errors.
“He probably is our top hitter over these last three to four weeks,” said Jefferson.
Johnston’s father, Bruce, played second base on St. X’s last state championship team in ’81. The younger Johnston joked that his father brings that fact up “almost every day.”
“People come up and talk to him about it all the time,” said Johnston.
A lucky penny
Like many baseball players, Johnston is prone to superstitions and a new addition to his pre-game ritual this season is dropping a special penny into his back pocket. “Last year my Dad gave me a penny that he kept in his pocket during his whole senior season and State run. I make sure I have that in my back pocket when I play.”
Johnston is still weighing college options but said he will likely land at the University of Kentucky to study architecture.
Hellmueller and Johnston are not the only ones in their final season.
Jefferson announced before the season that this would be his last.
“It’s almost impossible not to like him,” said Johnston. “He’s down-to-earth and always puts us before himself. He will definitely be missed.”
“We’ve rallied around him since day one,” said Hellmueller.
The Tigers are 2-2 this season against teams in the state tournament, including a 2-1 road win against No. 1 Lexington Catholic on March 31.
Also representing Jefferson County will be ninth-ranked Pleasure Ridge Park (29-7), who took down DeSales 5-2 in the Sixth Region final last Thursday. The Panthers will take on Lexington Catholic (30-6) in the first round.
First round action
Location: Whitaker Bank Park in Lexington at North Broadway just south of the beltline.
No. 2 St. X v. No. 18 Clay County (28-6), Monday, June 13, 6 p.m.
No. 9 PRP v. No. 1 Lexington Catholic, Tuesday, June 14, 6 p.m.
Contact columnist Chris Cahill at email@example.com.
photos by Chris Cahill | contributing photographer