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SPOTLIGHT
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Eagles pile on victories, head to regional

Published on -8/6/2012, 10:33 AM

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By KLINT SPILLER

kspiller@dailynews.net

MANHATTAN -- Layne Downing admitted after the game he was "shaking pretty bad" while he was warming up in the bullpen during the Class AAA American Legion state championship game Saturday against Pittsburg.

After Hays had taken an early 7-2 lead, Pittsburg was surging and had closed the gap to 7-5.

Downing, who completed his sophomore year at Hays High School this spring and never had thrown a pitch at the Senior Legion level, was called upon in the sixth inning to relieve Hays starter Josh Heifner and put an end to Pittsburg's rally. Downing was told prior to coming to the state tournament he mainly was there in case the Eagles need him to pinch hit.

He said he had no idea he was going to be used in relief.

"Those first couple of warm-up pitches, I was like, 'Oh God, is this actually happening,' " Downing said regarding his thought process while he was warming up in the bullpen.

It was a surprising decision to go with Downing, considering two of Hays' top pitchers ,Hayden Hutchison and Austin Unrein, were rested enough to throw. Kelly even could have gone with someone such as Trevor Henningsen, who made several appearances for the Eagles during the summer and had a 1.30 ERA.

After the game, Kelly said he was confident in Downing and also wanted to save some of his top pitchers for a possible rematch with Pittsburg on Sunday in case Hays was handed its first loss of the tournament.

The move to go with the Junior Legion player paid off.

Despite lacking the higher league experience, the young player performed marvelously, shutting down the hottest bats in the Class AAA tournament for three straight innings, and helped swing the momentum back to Hays' side. Hays won the state title 9-5.

He lasted three innings and allowed just one hit and a walk.

"(My mindset was) to throw strikes and try not to blow it for them," Downing said. "It was just the typical young mentality there."

Downing's debut helped continue one of the greatest seasons Hays has had.

The Eagles' winning percentage of 0.849 (45-8) is second only to the 1974 Hays Senior Legion team's winning percentage of 0.875 (35-5) -- what is regarded by many as the greatest Senior Legion season in the city's history.

"It feels great," Unrein said.

"This is what we've been working for our whole lives -- a state championship. It was our last chance, and we got it done. What more could you ask for?"

While it's difficult to compare teams from different generations and arguments can be made for either team, Unrein said his team deserves to be mentioned in the debate of the greatest ever.

"I don't really know the 1974 team, but in my eyes, yeah, I think we are the best team," Unrein said. "We have really good chemistry and the hitting, pitching and defense."

Though the regular season and state tournament are finished, the Hays Eagles still have an opportunity to add to their legacy by representing Kansas at the National Region 4 Tournament from Thursday to Aug. 14 in New Orleans.

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