By CONOR NICHOLL
In 2000-01, Rob McClellan pitched for Seward County Community College in the spring and played for the Liberal Bee Jays in the summer, a Jayhawk League team that faces the Hays Larks. McClellan then pitched for Arizona State University and the Kansas City Royals before landing as assistant coach for Chandler-Gilbert (Ariz.) Community College.
McClellan's Kansas roots have helped form a bond with Larks manager Frank Leo and bring multiple Chandler Gilbert players to Hays this summer. Leo signed five Coyotes for 2009. the most players from any school. Duquesne University (Pa.) ranks second with three. The Larks are scheduled to open their season tonight against Lindsborg. First pitch is 7 p.m. at Larks Park.
"(I) have a good relationship with him," Leo said. "This is his second year at Chandler-Gilbert and these are kids that he actually helped recruit so he has a better handle on them. He is very high and positive on these kids and I am anxious to get them out here."
Chandler-Gilbert's five players are: freshman pitchers Travis Lumby, Chris Larsen and Devyn Rivera, sophomore catcher Olie Goulder and freshman outfielder/catcher/pitcher Kyle Peterson. The Coyotes had two Larks on a 2008 team that finished 35-17 and won its sixth Jayhawk League title in eight years. Kevin Hennessey and Jason Kudlock both left the team before the season ended for personal reasons, but contributed to Hays' strong year.
Hennessey posted a .296 average with team highs in doubles (16), homers (6), RBIs (40) and saves (five) and made second team Jayhawk League. Kudlock batted .273, hit a walk-off homer and a 7.84 ERA in five appearances.
This year's group also brings talent.
The Coyotes, who play in a wood bat league just like Hays, went 18-35 this spring. Chandler-Gilbert's ace was Devyn Rivera, whose status is still uncertain for the summer. As of last week, Rivera was not expected to play, but Leo said Monday night that Rivera could join the Larks this summer. Rivera posted a 4-5 record and 3.98 ERA in a team-high 13 starts for the Coyotes this spring.
He also had 66 strikeouts in 631βΡ3 innings and a .219 opponents' batting average, all team bests. Leo said Rivera can throw 92 to 94 miles an hour and could be selected high in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft later this month.
"He is a pro prospect," Leo said.
Lumby logged a 3-5 record and 4.43 ERA in 14 games, while Chris Larsen went 3-5 with a 5.40 ERA in 16 games. Peterson, a possible superutilityman for Hays, was 1-1 with a 5.32 ERA in 10 appearances and carried a .259 average and 13 steals. Peterson is one of four players listed on Hays' roster that can catch.
"The Peterson kid brings a lot to us," Leo said. "He can catch, he is a runner, he can play centerfield, right field, has a cannon for an arm. He can also do some closing, so he is going to be a very flexible guy for us that can do a lot of things. Probably not do a whole lot of catching.
"The nice thing about this club is we have four guys that we can run behind the plate in case we get injuries," Leo said. "In Peterson's case, with us trying to use him to maybe be a closer, we will probably not try to catch him too much, play him in the outfield and so some closing."
Goulder hit in the No. 3 spot in the order for Chandler-Gilbert and delivered a .314 average, tied for the team-lead in homers (four) and paced the squad in slugging percentage (.479). A strong defender, Goulder threw out nearly 45 percent of baserunners, a terrific rate.
"He is supposed to have a fantastic arm," Leo said. "He has thrown out a ton of baserunners.... and his offensive game came along."
"Mr. Quiet" returns
Brandon Eckerle is one of six Larks returners this summer after he led Hays in multiple offensive categories and earned second team all-Jayhawk League. Eckerle, a Michigan State product, batted .298 as the team's leadoff hitter and paced the squad in games played (50), at-bats (188), runs (39) and steals (24). The steals rank top 10 on the Larks' all-time annuals.
Last summer, Eckerle went 6-for-6 against Salina in late June and consistently delivered for Hays throughout the year. Leo calls him a "professional and very low maintenance" and gave him the name "Mr. Quiet" midway through the season.
"He has that good even temperament where if he has a tough game he can bounce back," Leo said.
"If he has a good game, he doesn't get too high up. His 6-for-6 game was pretty exciting last year and I think he was pretty excited about that, but he also understands the next day you can go 0-for-4 and all of a sudden you forget about that 6-for-6. He has that great even temperament that makes him successful."