Johnson, Wainman form special friendship in reunion at Polk State

Posted on by Polk Newsroom

Over the last five years, a pair of Polk State Baseball outgoing sophomores have watched their sportsmanship evolve into a best friendship.

With both signed to Georgia Southwestern State University, infielder Evan Wainman and outfielder Kelsen Johnson will have been teammates at three different schools over a five-year period. The two were first teammates at Newsome High School in Lithia in 2020 – Wainman’s sophomore year and Johnson’s junior year.

“We both played third base and worked together every day,” Waiman recalled. “Being a sophomore moving up to varsity, I was looking for someone to look up to. He showed me how things were done.”

Early on, Johnson served as a mentor to Wainman.

“I was a four-year letterman in high school,” Johnson added. “As a freshman, I was the only non-senior to start. I never really had anyone to show me the ropes. I’ve been told my whole life I’ve had the ability to lead. Evan was super smart and had a lot of potential. He cared a lot about what he was doing and that really mattered to me.”

The two spent Johnson’s final two high school years together, but their relationship was more teammates than it was friends.

“I remember our first game was against Sickles (High School in Tampa) and he helped me calm my nerves early on,” Wainman reflected. “I was the new guy, and we had a lot of friendly competitions. Our friendship grew a little more my junior and senior year.”

High school teammates become conference rivals

As Wainman transitioned into one of the standouts for Newsome late in his high school career, Johnson’s road would be as a junior college journeyman. After spending one year at State College of Florida in which a back injury in the fall ended his season, Johnson had a solid 2023 for St. Petersburg College where he earned first-team All-Suncoast Conference honors while batting .359 with three home runs, six triples, 36 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases.

“I knew we would be playing against each other,” Wainman said. “I never expected that we would play together at Polk – let alone a four-year school.”

In their first matchup against one another, both put on a show as Polk State held off St. Petersburg by a score of 8-7 on March 17, 2023. Johnson finished with two RBIs and two runs scored. Wainman hit his first home run in conference play – a solo shot to give the Eagles a 3-0 lead in the fifth inning.

In what will likely be their final head-to-head matchup ever on April 19, 2023, Johnson could only watch as Wainman and his teammates celebrated a 4-3 victory in 11 innings to clinch a berth in the FCSAA Tournament. It also eliminated Johnson and the Titans from postseason contention.

“After my season at St. Pete, we started talking a lot again,” Johnson noted. “The first call I made after that spring season was to Evan. I didn’t think Evan and I would play together again. I asked if there was any position that Polk needed. He stuck out his neck for me and I was able to get a workout for the coaches.”

A Polk State reunion

By the fall, Johnson found himself on scholarship at Polk State. A versatile player, Johnson was the everyday left fielder for the Eagles in 2024, but also made starts at catcher and served as a pinch hitter, pinch runner, and designated hitter.

“When I heard he was transferring, I put in a good word for him,” Wainman explained. “I knew our coaches had a high opinion of him back when he was playing at St. Pete. I knew playing together again could happen, but it still seemed like a long shot.”

Reunited, Johnson and Wainman were both key contributors for Polk State this past season as they helped the Eagles reach the FCSAA Tournament for a fourth straight season. The attributes that Wainman saw in Johnson as a high school player remained evident as a college athlete.

“I remembered the fire he had in him,” Wainman noted. “He always played so hard.”

While Wainman was able to once again see the intangibles that made Johnson special as a player, Johnson saw growth in Wainman. Johnson watched Wainman go from a high school sophomore trying to adjust to varsity baseball to a power-hitting first baseman in the middle of the Polk State order.

“He was a quiet guy in high school,” Johnson noted. “He’s become a lot more open. He’s really grown a lot.”

In their three years of playing together, both Wainman and Johnson said their season at Polk State was the most enjoyable. The Eagles finished 33-25 and are one of just four FCSAA Division I programs to win at least 30 games in each of the last four seasons.

“It was definitely different this time around,” Wainman said. “He was no longer a mentor. He was a teammate and a friend.”

“Evan and I had a lot more fun playing together in college,” Johnson added. “We got to experience playing at a higher level. When you get to this level, it becomes a livelihood. The competitiveness at Polk was something we got to experience together. We really pushed each other to be better.”

Trading favors

While Wainman gets the credit for helping Johnson find his way to Polk State, the roles were reversed when it came to signing with Georgia Southwestern State (GSW). Johnson was the first to get an offer from the Hurricanes and pushed the coaching staff to look at his teammate.

“I struggled in the fall,” Wainman reflected. “He put in a good word for me. After he committed, GSW texted me and said they were interested. It’s sort of like we traded favors.”

“Evan has always flown under the radar a little bit,” Johnson suggested. “This year, he got to prove how good he really is. He has great tools as a player and a teammate. I believe he’s going to be an All-American at GSW.”

Friends for life

As a sophomore this past season, Wainman batted .279 for the Eagles and ranked second on the team in RBIs (37), and third in home runs with three. He was the only Polk State player to appear in all 58 games, but Johnson said his baseball acumen isn’t what makes him a special person.

“He’s always going to have your back,” Johnson said of Wainman. “He loves you and accepts you for who you are. There are only going to be a handful of people outside of your family who are going to be part of your life forever and for me, Evan is one of those people. He wants to be the best version of himself and help others do the same. We have like-minded views on life, and we were able to grown and learn from each other. He’s a really good person and he’s my best friend today.”

Wainman and Johnson’s relationship made for friendly jokes and banter in the locker room and dugout. One fun aspect of their friendship was their differences in size. Johnson is generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds while Wainman stands at 6-3 and 215 pounds.

“The height difference in our friendship might be the funniest thing,” Johnson said. “It’s hilarious. The short and tall jokes flew right and left all season.”

This past season, Johnson batted .287 for the Eagles with two home runs and 20 RBIs. He ranked second on the team with a .412 on-base percentage. Johnson’s biggest strengths, Wainman noted, aren’t found in the box score.

“We make jokes, but he’s always going to tell you the truth and tell you what you need to hear,” Wainman said. “He keeps you working hard and makes sure you don’t get lazy or complacent. I don’t think I would have had the baseball career I’ve had without him. He’s just an all-around great guy.”