High School Sports

Two sets of twins. Four stories. All on one team – Johansen High water polo

From left to right- Twins Shelby and Will Johnson, Nelson and Dominic Sabatini are pictured on Wednesday Sept. 12, 2018 at the Johansen high school pool.
From left to right- Twins Shelby and Will Johnson, Nelson and Dominic Sabatini are pictured on Wednesday Sept. 12, 2018 at the Johansen high school pool. jlee@modbee.com

The four boys come eat lunch in his office near the pool every day and Johansen water polo coach Brent Bohlender still struggles sorting out who is who.

“I start talking to them and they say ‘Oh no, that’s so-and-so,” Bohlender said. “I can’t tell them apart. There is no way.”

Bohlender has been coaching water polo for 40 years and has never had identical twins on a team ... let alone two sets.

Seniors Shelby and Will Johnson and Dominic and Nelson Sabatini are known as the “Four Twins” on the Vikings team.

Shelby is the team’s main shooter while Will plays primarily on defense and is also a set-up person on offense. Nelson is the team’s 2-meter offensive specialist while Dominic is the Vikings’ 2-meter defensive specialist.

“There are a lot of inside jokes between me, Dominic, Will, and Shelby but that’s just from playing with each other for so long,” Nelson said.

“They are all goofy,” Bohlender said. “They are good kids and want to do well. They are not the kind of kids that get in the water and mess around. They will do what is asked to them.”

The four boys haven’t just been playing together for the last four years, they played three years on Bohlender’s Modesto/Stanislaus Aquatics Club team.

In fifth grade, the boys met each other while attending Great Valley Academy and then in middle school, the group started to form a bond.

“We have always been really close,” Nelson said.


Although the Johnsons look alike, they’re different in their own ways.

Shelby can’t touch his right elbow after breaking it three times while Will is not only a good water polo player but also raised pigs and hogs for the past six years, selling them at the Stanislaus County Fair.

Breaking his elbow multiple times has not stopped the success of Shelby, who was named the 2017 Modesto Metro Conference MVP after scoring 105 goals in 31 matches. Will was a first-time MMC honoree last year.

“The are big muscular kids and they are tall,” Bohlender said.

In a few weeks, the Johnson’s are going to Toronto to look at a few water polo colleges. Fresno-Pacific University and others have already reached out.

“It would be great if we can play together,” Will said.

For Shelby, he agrees with his brother but “it would be nice to play against him for once.” After he graduates, Shelby wants to play water polo in college and focus on agriculture-based studies.

The bond in the pool remains strong.

“Its pretty fun, especially since we have been together for so long,” Shelby said. “We have gotten really competitive and we learned all of our playing styles.”


Dominic and Nelson Sabatini are two lighthearted individuals who always have smiles on their faces.

Nelson was a first-team MMC honoree last year and said playing with his brother and the Johnsons has made the game a lot easier.

“Having that connection and knowing each other since we were children and also being twins, we can guess what we are going to do and we’ve had times where we did the exact same things,” Nelson said.

One area where Nelson has not had success is riding a scooter.

“Nelson has broken his chin two times in a couple of weeks in the same place doing the same thing,” Dominic said. “He was riding a scooter and split his chin open.”

Dominic, a second-team honoree last year, also is known as “Pepperoni Toni.”

“The way I play on defense, they call it “Pepperoni Toni,” the way I grab the ball and move it,” Dominic said.

The Sabatini boys, who both have their middle toes stuck together, are planning to attend Modesto Junior College for two years before hopefully transferring to a four-year college and continuing their water polo careers together.


With nothing but cap numbers to identify individuals in the pool, the Johnsons and Sabatinis have attempted to trick referees during games.

“In a 12-under scrimmage, we tried to switch caps,” Nelson said. “It didn’t work.”

However, there have been incidents where one brother gets in trouble for what the other one did.

“There are multiple times where refs sometimes don’t look at the cap number but will look at the face and I will get kicked out instead of my brother,” Shelby said.

“Our freshman year, I had two kickouts and my brother had one,” Nelson said. “They majored him because they thought it was me. It was pretty funny.”

Even Bohlender has thought of trying to “mix” things up.

“I was actually going to change caps on them in the last game but I thought it wouldn’t be a good idea because the other team, College Park from Pleasant Hill ... I knew they had watched us the last two games,” he said. “My concern was if I switch their caps, they may mess up but I didn’t do it. It would have worked.”

Bohlender said there have been challenges with having two sets of twins on the same team but overall, the outcome has been very successful, which includes the program’s first playoff win in three years last season.

“They think they know where they are,” Bohlender said. “I would like them to be more aware of each other. Sometimes they just focus on each other and not on teammates.”

They are twins but each contributes to the team in a different way,” Bohlender said “We have to be a group of six and sometimes they are a group of four.”

The Johnsons and Sabatinis, two sets of identical twins who look like each other but are unique in their own ways.

Take it from Bohlender, if you have lunch with them, bring a notepad.