By AUSTIN COLBERT
Hays High School baseball coach Frank Leo understands the dilemma he faces each year as one of the smallest schools in Class 5A. The advantage the larger schools have is on the mound, where they are typically deeper and throw harder.
Even though Leo won't have as many options at pitcher as those teams will, it doesn't mean he isn't excited about what he will have on the mound in 2014.
"You got to start going in with our experienced strength, and that's going to be Kade Parker and Layne Downing," Leo said of his two senior pitchers. "We will have to build on the leadership and strength of what those guys bring on the mound. Pitching can overcome a lot of things. You have to play defense behind them, but that's where we are going to start this season."
Downing, a Dodge City Community College signee and first team All-WAC selection last year, will be the Indians' ace pitcher this year. Downing appeared in six games a season ago, going 2-1 with a 1.37 earned-run average. Parker, all-WAC honorable mention, appeared in five games and finished 3-1 with a 1.86 ERA. The duo looks to fill the void left by the graduation of Hayden Hutchison, last year's go-to pitcher and WAC Player of the Year.
And it's expected Downing and Parker will each get their first shot at being the team's feature players when Hays High opens its season at 2 p.m. Thursday at home against Kapaun Mount Carmel in a doubleheader.
Hays High split two games with Kapaun last year.
The Indians are coming off a 15-6 season in which they won the Western Athletic Conference title before they lost 3-2 to Goddard-Eisenhower in the 5A regionals. Hays High lost 10 seniors off that team and will be relying on what is believed to be a strong sophomore class this season.
"We have a lot of freshmen from last year that kind of know what they are walking into this year and are really stepping up," Parker said. "They are really stepping up and helping me and Layne ... really good, quick defensive guys that can really fly around and get the ball."
Three sophomores especially stand out to Leo as guys that should make a significant impact this season: infielder/pitcher Cole Schumacher, outfielder/pitcher Marcus Altman and catcher/infielder Connor Rule. All three logged good time as freshmen and should take on an even greater role this season.
Add to that list sophomores Dalton Stout and Jarett Pfannenstiel, junior Garrett Pfannenstiel, and seniors Brady Bieker and Cam Klaus, and you have the bulk of the Indians' starting lineup this season.
But with so much inexperience and so many athletes that can play multiple positions, Leo said to expect a lot of experimentation early in the year.
"We are going to have a lot of versatility -- figuring out the puzzle is going to take us some time," Leo said. "We feel like we have about 12 or 13 guys we can try to fit into the puzzle."
Along with the youth, team speed is a theme for the Indians this year.
While Hays High did lose its top four hitters by average from last year, its younger players have added a lot of quickness that wasn't present in 2013.
Leo wants to utilize this speed as much as possible, but knows he must first get them on base. While the team may not have big bats, it should have the personnel to effectively play "small ball" on offense.
"From bunting drills it looks like we got some guys that will be able to utilize that," Downing said. "They've been working on it quite a bit and they've shown they can do it. It's just getting in that game situation where the attention is up there a little bit. Hopefully we can get the sticks rolling hitting wise and not have to go to all that small ball."
The Indians will have five home doubleheaders this season, opponents being Kapaun (Thursday), Pratt (April 3), Junction City (April 15), Garden City (April 22) and Great Bend (April 29). Hays High will also host its annual Diamond Classic from May 8 to 10.
Road opponents include Dodge City (April 8), Salina South (April 17), Salina Central (May 6), and Liberal (May 13).
"The whole scheme of the season is to be prepared for your sub-state day. So we will be trying some things early on," Leo said. "I believe this club will be a lot different club by the time sub-state comes around. It's opening day and everybody is anxious for that. The kids are anxious, the coaches are anxious. We will be excited about it, but it will be a challenge."