Sabino baseball coach Kelly Johnson won a state championship as a junior with the Sabercats in 1997.

Now, in his first season at the helm, Johnson hopes to bring back the same kind of pride he used to play with.

“It’s different,” said Johnson, after his Sabercats lost to Ironwood Ridge 11-7 Tuesday, the second day of the Spray Master Lancer Baseball Classic at Reid Park.

“The expectations have changed. I want the kids to be able to walk around with pride, get the program where it used to be.”

After high school, Johnson earned a scholarship at Yavapai College to play

soccer and baseball. Despite hitting well at Yavapai, Johnson was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 45th round as a pitcher. That memory is something he will never forget.

“It’s what you dream of as a kid,” Johnson said. “Being in spring training and being feet away from Cal Ripken Jr. and Manny Ramirez taking batting practice.”

After spending seven years playing minor- and independent-league ball, Johnson got into coaching in 2005 and has now come full circle to where it all began.

The Star caught up with Johnson and found out where he would like to see the Sabercats improve in his first year with the team.

Fire in their belly

Through their first 11 games, the Sabercats are 4-7. Johnson noted that the team needs to play with desire, something it has lacked early on.

“Our kids don’t play with a fire,” Johnson said. “It’s important to give your max effort. It’s one of the things people watch.

“They have to have a desire; that’s what I preach. I tell them, ‘If you don’t want to win and compete, you’re not in the right program.’ ”

No more ‘Me-Ball’

While the Sabercats possess the ability to play small ball and bunt all throughout their lineup, they don’t always capitalize. Ultimately, that hurts their teammates.

“We can’t be selfish,” Johnson said. “We have to be able to give up an at-bat to move a guy over or to score a guy.”

Early on, when things haven’t gone their way, selfishness takes over.

“We need to be able to contain our emotions,” Johnson said. “We want the intensity, but we don’t need to see it.

“The slamming of a helmet, or the complaining about a call, no one wants to hear it.”

Head in the game

Sabino jumped out to 6-3 lead over I-Ridge on Tuesday. However, a few Nighthawks hits and Sabercats errors changed the mood.

There was no more chatter in the dugout and no one on the fence cheering their teammates on. It’s part of the culture Johnson has been trying to change since he arrived.

“Our mental focus needs to improve,” Johnson said. “Unless we’re winning by a lot, we feel like we’re not focused. When in reality, the other team’s playing seven innings. We should, too.”

For Lancer Baseball Classic Tuesday scores, Page B7

Contact reporter Chuck Constantino at or 954-0859. On Twitter: @CConstan3 or @azprepstar