By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

After missing last year's National Baseball Congress World Series for just the third time in franchise history, the Hays Larks have their sights set on making sure it doesn't happen again.

"That hunger started when we did not get the bid," Hays manager Frank Leo said. "Cody Gougler, Sean Wilson, Cam Brown -- those guys all wanted to come back with a vengeance and a commitment.

"With that nucleus, and those guys back knowing the disappointment the program felt, and they were a part of that -- they're excited to be here," Leo added. "They've got one goal in their minds, and that's get back to the NBC."

Hays opens the season today at 6 p.m. with a doubleheader against Denver at Larks Park.

Last year, Hays was 21-17 overall and 17-15 in the Jayhawk League, finishing third. Liberal won the league title, then went on to win the NBC World Series. The Larks weren't at the NBC for the first time since 1991.

"That commitment to win (this year) started when we got that news we weren't going to the World Series," Leo said. "I'm excited about that attitude those guys will bring back."

Leo wanted to bolster the pitching staff this summer. Last season, Hays had a 4.55 team earned-run average, its highest in five years.

"We have to fix our pitching staff," Leo said. "That's what I concentrated on. I wanted a more veteran staff. I wanted guys who are used to starting.

"After Andrew Heck last year, we had a very young staff, kind of pieced things together," Leo added. "I'm really pleased with what we put together."

Penciled in as the top two starters are left-hander Kirk Jewasko and right-hander Jorge Guarneros, both from Texas' University of Incarnate Word.

Jewasko was 12-1 with a 3.45 ERA and had 103 strikeouts in 911βΡ3 innings this spring. Guarneros was 11-1 with a 2.83 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 89 innings.

"Jewasko must be pretty special," Leo said. "I feel like our staff is fixed."

Leo thought he had his closer locked up in hard-throwing right-hander Stefan Lopez from Southeastern Louisiana. Lopez, who throws in the mid-90s, had 44 strikeouts in 36 innings this spring, with nine saves. But Lopez got hurt near the end of the season and Leo was left scrambling to find a closer.

Former Lark Seth Fortenberry, who is an assistant at Sam Houston State in Texas, contacted Leo about placing an outfielder. Leo asked him if he knew of an available closer, and Fortenberry said their closer was still available because he possibly was going to summer school.

But right-hander Michael Burchett didn't have to go to summer school, and instead will be the Larks' closer. At Sam Houston State this spring, Burchett, who is a submarine pitcher, was 4-1 with a 2.25 ERA with seven saves. He had 31 strikeouts and six walks in 44 innings.

"He's the real deal," Leo said. "He's not going to be a hard thrower like Lopez would have been. I feel fortunate we were able to replace a very good closer with another good closer."

Leo also had to replace a three-year Lark in center fielder Brandon Eckerle. Getting the first shot will be Aaron Cornell, who as a freshman at Eastern Oklahoma State hit .377 and stole 17 bases without getting caught.

"Cornell is the guy we're going to look at," Leo said. "He has a lot of skills. I'm hoping he can develop into an Eckerle-type guy, maybe be here three years for us."

Cody Gougler hit .289 with three homers and 27 RBIs for Southeastern Louisiana this spring.

He returns to the Larks this year as a corner outfielder who can play first base.

In the infield, the Larks return last year's double-play combination in second baseman Sean Wilson and shortstop Elvin Rodriguez. This spring for Chandler-Gilbert, Rodriguez hit .247, while Wilson batted .280 for the Larks last summer.

Lubbock Christian's Cam Brown, who can play first or third, hit .292 with eight homers and 43 RBIs for the Larks last summer.

Starting behind the plate will be Nathan Orf, who sat out this year at Baylor after transferring from Illinois-Chicago, where he .429 as a freshman.