By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

For decades, Hays Larks manager Frank Leo's first two weeks in August were set in stone: take his summer team to the season-ending National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita. The Larks have annually finished in the top-10 at the tournament, including four runner-ups and a fourth place showing last summer.

This season, though, Hays collected a 21-17 overall record, including a 17-15 mark in Jayhawk League play. The Larks finished with the lowest winning percentage in the program since they went 26-32 (15-24 Jayhawk) in 1998.

Because of several factors, the Larks didn't qualify for the NBC. It's the first time in 20 years Hays will not play postseason baseball; first occasion since 1991 that it's not in Wichita.

"It's uncharted waters," Leo said. "I have never taken a vacation in August. May have to find a place to go. It won't be Wichita that is for sure unless we were playing there."

The Larks could have automatically qualified by finishing in the top two in the conference. Instead, they finished third behind Haysville and Liberal. Hays could still have qualified automatically, though. Haysville, which also won the Midwest Regional title to secure another automatic berth, could have chosen the Jayhawk League bid or the regional bid.

If Haysville chose the regional berth, Liberal and Hays would earned the automatic bids from the league. If Haysville picked up the league bid, Derby (which finished second in the regional) and Liberal would go. Haysville selected the league berth and allowed Liberal and Derby to qualify.

On the field, Hays struggled on the mound all summer and finished with a 4.55 earned-run average. Their highest ERA in the previous four seasons was 3.66.

"When you don't throw strikes early in the count, you are not going to last very long," pitching coach Keith Harper said.

Several pitchers, including possible closer Trent Wilson (arm injury), never came. Leo picked up pitchers throughout the year, but the Larks finished with a 4.19 starters' ERA and a 5.34 mark from the relievers.

"They usually get five, six, seven innings pretty consistent and it seemed like they had trouble holding those leads," Dodge City manager Phil Stephenson said. "It's a tough situation to be in. You keep trying to run guys out there hoping somebody would be the guy and one night it is, one night it isn't."

A hallmark of the Larks is winning one-run games; in the previous two years, they were 22-7 in one-run contests. This season, hurt by the relievers, they finished 4-5 in one-run games and lost another contest (8-4 to Dodge City) in 10 innings.

"Some inconsistencies in the bullpen -- that would be the biggest thing I saw," Stephenson said. "At times, they swung the bat pretty well, played pretty good defense. It just seemed like at least when we played them, they just could never consistently put stuff together for periods of time."

Hays, though, would have still qualified if the NBC had not invited a smaller field. The previous four years, the World Series had either 36 or 42 squads. This summer, the field was cut to 32 teams. NBC officials told Leo the Larks would be the first at-large squad if a team dropped out. No team did. During the final week, with NBC status still in question, several Larks believed they could still qualify and make a run.

"It is hard to enjoy your summer when you are not playing where your team thinks they can play," ace Andrew Heck said. "I think this team has got a lot (more) talent than what our record shows. That's why we would be a sleeper if we would get into the NBC."

Instead, the Larks didn't qualify, a rarity for Leo and his longtime successful program.

"I have spent enough Augusts in Wichita in the heat of the NBC, so we'll find something to do, try to relax a little bit. It has been a pretty good grind, but you know where I'd rather be," Leo said.