By CONOR NICHOLL
The large contingent of Hays Larks' fans, seated down the third base line at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, rose and gave the Larks a big ovation after the team saw its season end with a 7-6 loss Sunday night to the Clarinda A's at the NBC World Series.
Left fielder Cody Gougler and his teammates wore ashen, sad and frustrated looks as they drank in the applause and left the field to head into the stands. The Larks signed autographs, embraced their parents, host families and friends and slowly exited the stadium.
Gougler, a two-year Lark and the team's leading hitter this summer, was one of the last players to leave the stands. His season had a tough ending. He started the ninth inning with a grounder to second. Gougler was out on the close play and was ejected from the game for arguing the call. On Gougler's way out of the tunnel, Elle Dreiling, one of Larks manager Frank Leo's grandchildren, stopped Gougler and asked for an autograph. Gougler turned and took a few seconds to sign a memento.
The scene represented three things that made the 2011 Hays Larks important. First, the Larks returned to the World Series after they didn't qualify last year, the first time in 20 seasons they didn't make a postseason tournament. Second, even after a tough loss, players like Gougler still signed autographs and thanked their host families. Third, from children, to parents, to families, this year's Larks team -- like many others throughout the years -- has a tremendous impact on the Hays community.
"There is nothing like it," Gougler said. "Out of all the teams in the nation that I could have ended up with, it's meant to be for me to be here. I absolutely loved it. I love the city of Hays, the fans, my host family ... (are) unbelievable people. I love Coach Leo and Coach (Keith) Harper and their families. The World Series is just a special place to be, and I am really glad that I got a chance to do it, and it won't be the last time that I will visit Hays. Forever, I will love Hays."
The Larks had several obstacles to overcome before reaching the World Series. In the offseason, Leo wanted to overhaul a pitching staff that had a 4.55 earned-run average last season; from 2006-09, the highest staff ERA was 3.66. Leo brought in closer Michael Burchett (11 saves, second-most in Larks' history) and Matt Schmit (2-1, 1.62 ERA). But the starting pitching again struggled.
Jorge Guarneros, who had a 1.50 ERA in 12 innings, had to leave the team early in the season because of an injury. Pepe Gomez battled a groin injury most of the year and finished with a 1-3 record and 6.35 ERA. Kirk Jewasko started slowly, made some mechanical changes and threw 16 innings without allowing an earned run in his last two starts. The Larks' team ERA was 3.99. Offensively, Jon Ryan hit 10 homers, one off the top-10 list in Larks' history. His .578 slugging percentage ranks 10th all-time, while Aaron Cornell's .601 slugging percentage is eighth. Hays hit .305 as a team, well higher than last summer's .284 mark.
After a slow start, Hays went 11-5 in Jayhawk League play down the stretch to earn second place in the conference. The Larks clinched an NBC berth on the season's final day in front an estimated crowd of 1,100.
At the World Series, the Larks, who have never won an NBC title, had a sign posted in their hotel that said "2011 Larks: BELIEVE: This is our Year!!" But Hays went 2-2 in the tournament, its shortest trip since 2005. The Larks lost two games by a combined three runs.
"That doesn't take away from the great season that the Larks had," Gougler said. "The Larks are back out on the map. Coach Leo, I have all the faith in the world that he is going to put together a good team. Finally get back here to win it all here in the next couple years."
Even after the final loss, the Larks were proud to return to the World Series -- and the city of Hays was proud to support the club.