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Johnston Dragons baseball is back on top after a three-year hiatus

Johnston Dragons baseball is back on top after a three-year hiatus
This year’s IHSAA state title is the fifth championship in Johnston Dragons baseball history. (Courtesy: Mike Barta)

JOHNSTON, Iowa (BVM) — A 24-3 season that ended with a 14-game win streak and an IHSAA 4A baseball state championship is impressive. Doing all of that during a pandemic is unprecedented, yet that is exactly what Johnston High School accomplished this year.

As the Dragons were piling on top of each other following an 11-8 win over Ankeny High School at Principal Park, they weren’t thinking about what it took to get to that point. Now, a few days after winning their fifth state title in school history, a look back at what it took to win shows just how special it was. 

“We usually get a lot of prep time before the season starts,” said Johnston head baseball coach Mike Barta. “Then you get to the season and you really feel like you’ve got your feet under you.”

None of that happened this year because the season was in question from the very beginning. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down spring sports across the country. As the summer began, the IHSAA made that decision to move forward with summer baseball, but with added precautions to limit the risk. 

“When we showed up on June 1 it was like we needed to really commit to a ton of different things in regards to making sure we’re healthy, getting our arms in shape, but then still trying to figure out how we can get processes of pitch design to push our kids,” Barta said. “To get our team meetings and our culture established. It was like you were combining maybe eight months of material into two.”

The Dragons had also lost a lot of talent to graduation the year before, from a team that had made it to the 2019 state championship game.

“With all that talent graduating,” Bart said, “we felt we kind of had our work cut out for us.”

Short on time, Johnston began work, falling back on what has made the Dragons one of the best baseball programs in the state. 

“We pushed them really hard this summer and so this is probably one of the teams we made the most growth work with during my time as a head coach, even in the small window of time we cleaned up so many things,” Barta said. 

Not only were the Dragons pushed by their coaches, they were also motivated because of their circumstances. Forced by the pandemic to adopt new regulations, the team was determined to make the season worth the commitment they were making. They were thankful for the opportunity to play, but if they were going to play, they were going to go all out.

“I mean eight weeks is a blip in your life,” Barta said. “You can suck it up for eight weeks and commit to something really well for eight weeks. We also talked about we have two opponents here and we have to beat them both, the state and COVID. That was our mantra. We talked about it every day. We had coach, coach Steffes, and he talked about it everyday, ‘We’re beating COVID. Nobody’s screwing this up.’ It was great. We rallied behind that.”

It worked because as the season was coming to an end, Johnston found itself atop the 4A ranking and firing on all cylinders. The Dragons entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed, facing Cedar Falls in the first round.

“I felt really good about it the whole time,” Barta said. “I think it was a back-and-forth battle, but I felt good about our offense against their pitchers. I felt like we had an ace up our sleeve and a couple pitchers in the pen that if things got tight they’d come in and blow gas and we’d be fine.”

After beating Cedar Falls, 11-7, they moved on to the semifinals to face their rivals. It was the team that had beat them in the state championship the previous year —  two-time reigning state champion Urbandale.

“You don’t want to call it bad blood because I respect their coaching staff and the players that have gone through their program,” Barta said. “As far as our rivalry it is intense. Once the game starts, we pretty much hate each other. It’s as intense as they get, so our kids were up for that game. Every play, every pitch it was so intense. I mean it’s too bad you had all the COVID restrictions on people in the stands because you might have had the whole Des Moines area in the stands. You might’ve packed that place.”

It was a thrilling semifinal game that any bystander could’ve mistaken for a state championship game, but it was what Johnston wanted.

“We really wanted Urbandale on our side of the bracket,” Barta said. “That’s what makes your championship that much more special when you go out and beat the team that’s solid and you wanted to take care of.”

After knocking off Urbandale, 3-1, the Dragons found themselves in the state title game having to refocus after already playing in a game that had a championship atmosphere.

“As a coaching staff we were actually kind of worried about that because our kids were so jacked about winning that game and it was so emotional,” Barta said. “Then you turn around in 24 hours and you’re playing a game versus a team that really had a better season than Urbandale.”

That team was No. 2-seeded Ankeny.

“Ankeny is another tremendously-coached program,” Barta said. “They’re just dripping in athleticism.”

Even though they had tried to prevent it, the worries going into the game came to fruition for Johnston.

“We didn’t start that championship game well,” Barta said. “We had one inning in there where we looked like a little league team.”

However, the Dragons did not crumble under the pressure. Reminded by their coaches to rely on their talent, they persevered and fought to climb out of the hole they had dug themselves.

“In the time of adversity, how you respond defines you as a man,” Barta said. 

After a four-run fourth inning for Ankeny, Johnston found itself down, 7-3, going into the fifth inning. It was in that frame that the Dragons began their rally, tying the game by the end of the fifth and then taking the lead following a five-run sixth inning. 

Up 11-8 going into the seventh, the Dragons didn’t look back holding that score to finish their season with a championship. 

“I just feel like everybody in our state did a phenomenal job at giving the kids the opportunity to play and have their childhood but in a safe way,” Barta said.

Through it all, Johnston grew as a team and as a family. In a year that has been marred with negatives, the Dragons found a positive.

“For us, for our baseball family, this year has been a blessing,” Barta said. “This is a year we’ll remember in a positive way.”

As the summer of 2020 comes to an end, the Dragons can look back at it as a moment in history when faced with unprecedented obstacles, they found a way to excel, winning a state championship during a pandemic and becoming a family. 

Years from now this Johnston group will look back at this time, those eight weeks of their lives and think to themselves what Barta is thinking right now.

“It was crazy stuff, but it was worth it.”

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