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Tiger baseball kicks off MIAA with Central Missouri

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Third-year coach Steve Johnson sat in the Larks Park first base dugout as he watched the Fort Hays State University warmup in a practice a few days before it started the season last week.

He looked out at a brand new turf infield, a much different look than the old, worn out, green turf that covered Larks Park for many years.

"A dream come true," Johnson said.

Helped by multiple boosters, donations and legwork from FHSU athletic director Curtis Hammeke, the Tigers now can position themselves for meeting one of Johnson's goals.

"My dream in my time here is to make this one of the premier places where people come and play in the state and in the region," Johnson said. "... It's been a long process. It's been one that quite honestly was needed. The old turf was in bad shape."

Fort Hays was supposed to have its first home games on the new field this weekend. Instead, the Tigers made a late addition to the schedule and played NAIA Bethany College on Wednesday. Fort Hays won 17-3, and moved to 3-1.

"It's a little bit slower of course," senior Ryan Busboom said. "The old turf was getting pretty old. It was running pretty fast, and it had its holes in it where it was hopping up in your face and everything, but everybody on the infield feels very comfortable taking it on this turf. It is a huge plus to have this turf. It just makes everything a lot easier on the infield, and I think it will be really nice for this year."

On Saturday, Fort Hays will face University of Central Missouri, ranked No. 9 overall at 3-1. The Tigers will have a doubleheader Saturday starting at 1 p.m. followed by a single game Sunday also starting at 1 p.m. In recent seasons, the Tigers have fared better than most against the Mules, winners of 23 MIAA championships and the most wins of any NCAA program since 2000.

"We are lucky to find a field like this," senior ace right-hander Alex Ellison said. "There is a lot more cushion, that's for sure. There is no holes. It just feels really comfortable."

In the regular season last year, Fort Hays took three of four at home against the Mules. Then, Central Missouri won two against the Tigers in the conference tournament, including the championship game. In 2008, FHSU also won three of four games versus UCM in Warrensburg.

This week, junior centerfielder Clayton Garland, a transfer from Barton Community College and senior left-hander Tayler Davis earned MIAA Hitter and Pitcher of the Week honors, respectively

Last week, Garland hit .500 (7 of 14) as the Tigers took two of three on the road at Metropolitan State (Colo.) University. Garland reached base 12 out of 17 times. He carries a .500 average, second-best on the team to junior outfielder Nathan Miller (.538).

Davis picked up a complete game in a 10-4 victory. He allowed zero earned runs in seven innings.

Last year, Davis went 1-1 with a 12.06 earned-run average in 10 games, but Johnson said the left-hander made significant mechanical adjustments and had impressed in preseason.

As a team, Fort Hays carries a .414 average. Many of the players are first-year Tigers, but senior Kelton Rule, a Hays High School product, has returned to the team. He carries a .333 average in four games. As a freshman, Rule started every game at shortstop and carried a .283 average. Sophomore year, Rule batted .143 in 70 at-bats. Last spring, Rule went through several off-the-field issues and batted .313 in 32 at-bats.

"We had a little sit down and his attitude is as good as you can get," Johnson said. "He is swinging it extremely well. I think he is enjoying being out of there every day and being a part of it. I think he likes this team. He knows that this is his senior year and he has a chance to go out and have a great season and help this team and this program take it to a different level, and I couldn't be prouder of Kelton, the decisions he has made, how he has handled himself and we are glad to have him back."