By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

The Hays Larks couldn't catch El Dorado last summer in the Jayhawk League race.

That's why Larks manager Frank Leo said a good start is important this year for his club, which opens the season today with a 6 p.m. nonleague doubleheader against Denver at Larks Park. Hays and Denver also play a single game Monday, then the Larks have six straight against Jayhawk League opponents.

A good start is "very important," said Leo, whose team had won six of the last eight Jayhawk League titles before finishing second in 2009.

"El Dorado did that last summer, got off to a fast start and we had a heck of a time catching them," Leo said of the Broncos, who won the league title and the NBC World Series. "We made a great run at the end."

Year in, year out, Leo has had to deal with makeshift lineups in the early going, until all of the players report. This year is no different.

"It's going to be thin early," Leo said, adding his team might be close to full strength when Jayhawk League newcomer Haysville comes to town for a three-game series starting on Friday.

"Not quite as drastic as last year, when I was still hunting for position players and a couple pitchers," Leo said. "This year, just a couple pitching spots that I'm trying to solidify."

Hays' probable starters in the opener are a pair of right-handers, Patrick Cooper (Bradley University) in Game 1 and Andrew Heck (Duquesne University) in the second game.

Cooper, who won eight games for Hays in 2008, pitched in the Cape Cod League last summer before joining the Larks at the National Baseball Congress World Series, where he went 1-0 with a 0.87 earned-run average. Cooper was 4-5 with a 3.99 ERA for Bradley this spring. Heck, also an outfielder, made 13 appearances last summer, including 11 starts. He went 6-0 with a 1.79 ERA.

But both Cooper and Heck and strong candidates to be selected in the Major League draft this week; their stay in Hays could be short. The Larks also could lose another pitcher to the draft, right-hander Devyn Rivera from Chandler-Gilbert (Ariz.) Community College. Rivera was with the Larks at the season finale last year.

While Leo might have holes to fill on the mound, he thinks he has a deep roster when it comes to position players.

"Position-wise, we're going to have an outstanding core of position players in here," Leo said. "We're going to have the most depth I've ever had."

Starting at catcher. Returner Ollie Goulder won't report until mid-June, and he also could be drafted. Last summer, Goulder hit .276 with two homers and 13 RBIs. The Larks also have behind the plate Sloan Soulia, who hit .360 with 10 homers and 53 RBIs for Fort Hays State University this spring. Kyle Peterson returns as a full-time catcher this summer, and in a pinch could pitch. Peterson hit .221 with three homers and 13 RBIs for Hays last summer. Also on the club is former Hays High School catcher Jay Sanders, who was on the Fort Hays roster this spring.

"At catcher, we're going to be loaded, not have to worry about wearing guys out," Leo said.

Sharing first base will be a pair of newcomers in Cam Brown, an Australian native, and Zak Leonhardt from Angelo State (Texas) University, who also can play third. Brown hit .399 with six homers and 45 RBIs while using a wood bat for Yavapai (Ariz.) College this spring, while Leonhardt batted .373 with seven homers and 60 RBIs for Angelo State.

"Outstanding hitter, excited to see Cam, what he can bring to the ballclub," Leo said. "Zak was a big-time hitter at Angelo."

Rob Elliot, who played third and batted second for Bradley, is at second base. Elliot hit .341 for Bradley this spring, with three homers and 27 RBIs with 15 steals, and struck out just nine times.

"He's a player that's going to be exciting," Leo said.

Leo also is excited about the shortstop position. He has Elvin Rodriguez from Chandler-Gilbert and Larry Rodriguez (who also can play third), who is with San Jacinto (Texas) College, which was in the title game on Saturday at the junior college world series. Larry Rodriguez is hitting .305 with eight homers and 32 RBIs.

"You're going to enjoy seeing him defensively," Leo said of Elvin Rodriguez. "He's a great defensive shortstop."

Larry Rodriguez could see time at third, as could Leonhardt and Sean Wilson from Gonzaga (Wash.) University. Wilson hit .256 with one homer and 20 RBIs this spring. Leo plans to use Wilson at several positions.

"We're going to have a ton of flexibility in the infield," Leo said.

In the outfield, Heck played in center at Duquesne, but he likely will move to a corner spot with the Larks. Hays has returning in center Brandon Eckerle from Michigan State University. Heck hit .360 with three homers and 21 RBIs for the Larks last summer, while Eckerle batted .382 with 12 RBIs and had a team-high 26 steals.

Another corner outfield spot could go to Cody Goughler (Southeast Louisiana University), Justin Klusak (Eastern Oklahoma State College) or Brian Martin (Bradley). Goughler led Southeast Louisiana at the plate, hitting .337 with four homers and 41 RBIs. Klusak, who will play at New Mexico State University next year, batted .293 for Eastern Oklahoma, with 10 homers and 54 RBIs, with 14 steals. Martin wrestled in high school and went to Bradley to wrestle before switching to baseball. Martin led Bradley in hitting this spring, batting .364 with three homers and 39 RBIs, with a team-high 24 stolen bases.

After Cooper and Heck in the rotation, Leo is eager to see how Colby product Levi Schlick fares. Schlick, a tall left-hander, was 5-4 with a 2.11 ERA at Barton County Community College, and also led the team in hitting at .378.

"Levi Schlick, just a young pitcher, but he's going to be an interesting kid to follow," Leo said. "Going to look at him as a starter. We're anxious to see what he brings to us."

Jacob Booden, who went 4-4 with a 3.99 ERA at Bradley this spring, also is in the mix in the rotation. San Jacinto's Cory Jordan could start, as could University of Arizona left-hander Vincent Littleman; he will report late, because the Wildcats are in the NCAA playoffs.

"Starting core looks strong, but you win and lose games mid to late innings, and that's where we've got to be strong," Leo said.

Leo will hold auditions for the closer's role out of the bullpen. Trent Wilson, who had 13 saves at Chandler-Gilbert, was supposed to be the closer, but is sidelined with an injury.

"He's got arm issues," Leo said. "I don't know if we'll see him. That's the guy we had penciled in."

Closer candidates include Riley Welch from Yavapai, Mark Phillips from Gonzaga and infielder Larry Rodriguez.

Among those pitching in middle relief will be Welch and former Hays High right-hander Andy Lewton, who was 2-6 with a 6.57 ERA with Fort Hays this spring in a starting role.

Last season, the Larks tied for fourth at the World Series, finishing the year at 32-16.

Leo thinks this summer's team has the talent to be a good club.

"On paper, it looks that way, (but) the game is played between the white lines," Leo said. "Hopefully, we become a cohesive unit throughout the summer and play together as a Hays Lark and not as an individual from different schools.

"We talk to our guys about that from Day 1: You're a Hays Lark this summer. We want to have a lot of fun and get to the World Series, (where) anything can happen," Leo added. "That's always our goal."