By CONOR NICHOLL
Center fielder Aaron Cornell didn't expect to come back to the Hays Larks this summer after he earned Jayhawk League Player of the Year honors last season. Cornell thought he would play in the Alaskan League after he hit .346 with a .593 slugging percentage, ninth all-time in Larks' annals, in 2011.
Then he had a rough spring at Oklahoma State University and batted .088 in limited playing time. Cornell inquired about the Larks, but there weren't any roster spots. Outfielder Darian Johnson, from Lamar (Texas) University, was supposed to come to Hays, but hurt his knee. Cornell had an opening and returned to the Larks for a second year.
"This is my second home," he said.
On Friday, Cornell finished 2 for 5 with a run scored and two RBIs in a 5-3 season-opening victory against Denver at Larks Park.
"I was really itching to get out here," Cornell said. "Started out slow this game. I remember being in that spot last year. You have just got to relax in that situation. Guys were supportive behind me wholeheartedly and helped me get those hits."
Cornell tied the game at three in the sixth inning on a double down the third base line. In the bottom of the eighth, Cornell drove a 1-2 pitch into right-center field for an RBI-triple that broke the tie. He later scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch.
"He is feeling comfortable," manager Frank Leo said. "He is happy to back here in a Larks uniform and we expect good things out of him all summer long. He needs to get at-bats. It's hard to be consistent in this game when you don't get all those at-bats."
Cornell's day punctuated a solid game, one similar to that of many former Larks' squads. Hays fell down 3-1 after three innings, but battled back for the victory.
Four Larks pitchers collectively walked eight batters, but allowed only two hits. Left hander Shawn Lewick, Fort Hays State University's ace this spring, earned the win with three no-hit relief innings.
Shortstop Elvin Rodriguez, a three-year Lark, made a great catch on a liner, and second baseman Zair Koeiman had a diving play on a ground ball. Jason Heflin worked out of a bases loaded, no outs jam for the save.
"Just all around, I feel like everyone was doing their part," Cornell said. "It is going to be an exciting year. We have got a lot of guys that can play."
More than 430 people filled Larks Park with another big crowd. Even a little "Larks Magic" occurred. With the game tied in the eighth, Brett Lang, the son of Larry Lang, who is from Hays and played for Leo in the '80s, led off with a fly ball to center.
Cougar center fielder Hunter Brown slipped on the grass and couldn't make the play. Lang finished with a double and later scored on Cornell's triple. The one difference was the cooler weather that dipped into the 50s and forced Leo and many players to wear jackets by game's end.
"I thought we were going to be in a tough summer heat-wise after the way the spring was and we probably will be," Leo said. "We will take the break. We know that it is going to get hot. We had to get some kinks out. Some guys hadn't played for awhile and were a little rusty, but I like the competitiveness on our part."
Last summer, Cornell came from Eastern Oklahoma junior college and immediately took over as Hays' center fielder. He finished the season with a team-high 25 extra base hits.
Then, Cornell transferred to Oklahoma State. Leo knew in the fall the Cowboy coaches wanted to send Cornell to Alaska.
In the spring, Cornell played in 21 games with nine starts, but finished 3 of 34 at the plate with no extra base hits. Friday marked Cornell's first extra base hits since before last year's National Baseball Congress World Series in early August.
"Very, very frustrating," Cornell said of the spring. "But I tried not letting it get to me and I just started getting ready and preparing myself for summer, hitting the weight room hard and just trying to get myself and my body prepared."
Cornell needed playing time and called Leo to ask if the manager had room. At the time, the answer was no, but then the opening came. Cornell found out he was returning about three weeks ago and is expected to play everyday in Hays.
"That's why he is here," Leo said. "He knew this would be a place where he could get his game put back together and a place where he was successful."
Cornell's only drawback came after his triple. Cornell has had recurring hip problems and tweaked his hip when he dodged a foul ball down the third base line. The game paused momentarily, but Cornell stayed in the game and was expected to ice the injury afterward. Postgame, Cornell wore a smile following his first day back in a Larks' uniform -- and his best game in more than 10 months.
"I have been excited ever since I found out that I was coming back," he said.