By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Hays Larks manager Frank Leo starts recruiting players in October. Leo always is excited for the spring when he can start following the players' stats. After the spring season, the excitement grows even more when the players come to Hays in late May, early June.

"Now we get to see their face," Leo said, his smile growing bigger. "Put them on the field."

After more than 30 years with Hays High School and the Larks, the start of a new season is still the same for Leo.

"Someone asked me the other day how exciting is it to go the state tournament with the high school team," Leo said. "I said, 'Just as exciting as it was the first time.' It's a new bunch. It's the same with our Larks' guys. It's a relatively new bunch. I am excited to get them here. People talk about Larks baseball when I run into them. They are excited to see what we've got, and so am I."

The Larks don't have a lot of depth, but have plenty of talent and return several key players from last season's squad that finished 30-18, 20-14 in the Jayhawk League, and went 2-2 in the National Baseball Congress World Series.

In 2010, Hays didn't qualify for the NBC for the first time in 20 years. The Larks open the season with a three-game home series against the Denver Cougars today at Larks Park. Game time is 7 p.m.

"It was key to get back and get that feeling of getting to the World Series," Leo said. "We had some guys return that were on a mission to do that and they helped us get there."

That includes center fielder Aaron Cornell, who batted .346 with a .593 slugging percentage and 25 extra base hits, outfielders Jon Ryan (.329 average, 10 homers) and Mackenzie Handel (.325 average) and shortstop Elvin Rodriguez, a third-year Lark.

Justin Ziegler delivered a 4-0 record and 2.25 earned-run average, picked up first-team all-league honors and is expected to anchor the staff. Ryan, from University of Illinois-Chicago, and his teammate, right-handed pitcher Joey Begel, are dealing with back and arm injuries, but are expected to come to Hays within a week.

"We have got some veterans back and that's a good thing, because those guys can relay the Larks' tradition down, keep passing it down," Leo said. "That's why we bring six, seven kids back each year."

Cornell finished ninth on the all-time list in slugging percentage in team history and earned Jayhawk Player of the Year honors. This spring, he struggled at Oklahoma State University, but hit .088 in 34 at-bats. Cornell, known for his personality -- he did a Michael Jackson routine on the field during a NBC rain delay - will receive daily playing time with Hays.

"He is so excited to be back in Hays and put a Larks uniform on again," Leo said. "That's the kind of excitement and intensity that I like to see in summer baseball with our kids. ... Oklahoma State is a tough place. They have got a lot of guys down there and if you don't produce right away, they throw somebody else in there, and if they start producing, then you kind of get buried. Cornell is a competitor. He has got to be playing everyday to keep on top of his game."

On the infield, Ryan Busboom, a first team All-American for Fort Hays State University, will move back to first and third base after he played left field for the first time in the spring. Busboom is FHSU's first All-American in four years.

In addition, FHSU ace Shawn Lewick is expected to play a key role on the pitching staff, while pitcher Alex Ellison and catcher Jay Sanders are in the mix, too. About three-quarters of the way through the spring, Busboom approached the Larks about playing in Hays. The Larks picked him up the next day. Busboom has played in Nebraska and for Newton the last two years.

"It's the biggest program in Kansas, pretty much, for summer," Busboom said. "So, it's a real honor to play on the team. (Newton) was OK, but they don't draw near the fans (of the Larks) and you had to pay more money. The setup here is really good."

Unlike last year, Leo doesn't believe he has a shutdown closer like Michael Burchett, but has several quality relief arms, including Arizona Western's Claudio Valencia, a two-way player who closed this spring. Northwood University's Jason Heflin and Colton Reavis are strong, too.

In the infield, Zair Koeiman, from Curacao, will play second, while Valencia can play any of the infield positions. Three catchers, including sophomore Austin Jarvis, will see time. Jarvis, from Bradley (Ill.) University, is up for the Johnny Bench Award as the best collegiate career.

"We started meeting these guys yesterday," Leo said. "They all seemed like they are great character kids. That's a big thing. We are excited about the bunch that we have coming in."