By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

Now, the fun begins.

The Hays Larks weren't assured of a berth in the NBC World Series until their final game of the regular season, but Wednesday night's 5-3 Jayhawk League win over Dodge City clinched a berth in the season finale in Wichita.

Hays will play Crestwood, Ill., on Monday at 7:30 p.m. in Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.

"Coming to the park (Wednesday night), it was a must win, must win if we wanted to guarantee our fate in the World Series," Hays manager Frank Leo said.

As it turned out, the Larks found out midway through the game they had a berth after missing last year for the first time since 1991. Derby had two ways of qualifying, and chose its bid through the Midwest regional, opening up the second Jayhawk spot for Hays.

"I know it was announced -- Derby made a decision earlier -- our guys didn't know that the first four innings," Leo said.

Hays (28-16 overall, 20-14 Jayhawk) took a 5-0 lead after three innings, and with the win clinched second place in the league standings.

"These guys had to make a great run in July," Leo said. "July is not an easy month to make a run, get yourself in position. Real proud what they did."

Right-hander Justin Ziegler -- the probable starter against Crestwood -- worked the first five innings to improve to 4-0. Ziegler allowed one hit, with one walk and six strikeouts.

"They came out focused, very focused," Leo said. "Ziegler did an outstanding job, and now we're going on."

The Larks backed Ziegler with a run in the first, two in the second and two in the third.

Aaron Cornell hit an RBI double in the first, a wild pitch and Sean Wilson's RBI single made it 3-0 in the second, and Jon Ryan's 10th homer of the seasonâö a two-run shot in the third -- gave Hays a 5-0 lead.

Left-hander Kirk Jewasko tossed two scoreless innings, and left-hander Tory Doerr didn't allow a run in the eighth. Larks closer Michael Burchett allowed three runs -- one earned -- in the ninth before getting the final out.

Starter Patrick Bailey took the loss for Dodge City (19-24, 11-22), allowing five runs on nine hits in three innings.

Haysville won a tightly-contested league race which saw four teams head to Wichita.

"Any day at the ball park somebody could have taken over first place," Leo said. "Outstanding Jayhawk League this year.

"These guys turned it up when they had to," Leo added.

Now, they're headed to Wichita.