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Hays High's Downing inks letter with Dodge

By AUSTIN COLBERT

acolbert@dailynews.net

Brock Nehls knew exactly what he was getting into when he offered a baseball scholarship to Hays High School senior Layne Downing back in October.

"I've known the family for a long time. His dad and my dad used to play softball together when they were in Dodge City," Nehls said. "Saw Layne quite a few times before his senior year. Really liked that he is a physical kid. Good head on his shoulders and he comes from what I'm going to say is a great high school program, because I'm a former Indian myself."

On Wednesday in the HHS cafeteria, Downing signed his letter of intent to play for Dodge City Community College, where Nehls is in his second year as an assistant baseball coach in charge of recruiting and pitching. Nehls is a 2004 Hays High graduate who went on to play baseball for Barton Community College and Emporia State University.

"This summer, when we were playing in Dodge, coach Nehls saw me and was interested right off the bat," Downing said. "I didn't think anything was going to come up this early. I was waiting for closer to baseball season or during the season until I got some offers. Then this one came along and I thought it was just a good fit for me."

Downing emerged as an ace pitcher for the Indians during his junior season, where he was 2-1 on the mound with a 1.37 earned-run average and hit .338 as a batter. His best outing came in a 9-0 win over Liberal on May 7, a no-hitter for Downing.

He followed with a stellar summer playing for the Hays Eagles Legion baseball team, which won its second consecutive Class AAA state championship. Downing was 6-3 for the Eagles with a 2.14 ERA and had a .304 batting average.

"He really started coming on midway through his junior year in the spring. Pitching wise he found it. He got a lot of confidence and became our best guy on the mound and carried that over into the summer," Hays High baseball coach Frank Leo said.

"Really proud of what he accomplished. He came in here as a freshman -- I think in the back of his mind that freshman year he knew that someday he wanted to play college baseball. And he didn't back down to any challenges."

Downing's role with DCCC won't be known until he starts practicing with the Conquistadors. Nehls sees him as a "two-way guy," playing both pitcher and being a hitter. Downing could also see plenty of time in the infield, most likely at third base.

"He told me I was going to hopefully have a big impact right away on the mound and at third. I'm excited to be able to play both ways," Downing said. "Now I can just relax and play ball in the spring. I don't have to worry about if I have a bad game here or a bad game there. I can just go out and play."

Downing is the first Hays High signee for Nehls, who has gone after a handful of Indians over the last couple of seasons. Nehls first offered Downing in early October, and Downing gave a verbal commitment to the Conqs at the end of the month when the Downings went to a showcase tournament in Dodge City.

"I think Brock knows we have a great coaching staff here. Frank and his staff do a wonderful job of preparing these kids to move on to the next level. I think Brock had been through that process so he knew the kids would be prepared for that," said Scott Downing, Layne Downing's father.

"I think it's nice for him to be able to focus on his senior year of high school and his summer year of Legion ball and not have to worry about where he is going to go. That future is set for him now. Just work hard and get ready for that and finish up his career in high school."