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Top sports stories 2012: Larks put together another 'magical' season

By NICK McQUEEN

nmcqueen@dailynews.net

Each summer it begins to sound like a broken record.

But, what the Hays Larks are able to accomplish at times against the odds is nothing short of "magical."

That "Larks Magic" was put to good use from July to mid-August this summer, culminating in one of the most memorable Larks runs in recent history.

The Larks faced inevitable adversity in mid-July, with injuries and losing two of its top pitchers.

Still, Hays rebounded, made a late-season push and won its first Jayhawk League title since 2008. The regular-season finish included a 13-3 record in the final 16 games. It was the seventh league crown for the Larks in the last 12 seasons.

Then, after a rare first-round loss at the National Baseball Congress World Series, Hays battled all the way back in the elmination bracket to finish in the final four.

It's one of the HDN's top stories of 2012.

"Baseball is a game of overcoming adversity," Larks manager Frank Leo said after the season.

"The team that can overcome it is the team that is going to be successful. Our guys did that this summer."

The biggest hit to the Larks' campaign came in mid July, and hurt Hays' pitching staff. Starters Shawn Lewick and Alex Ellison both left the team -- Ellison for off-the-field issues and Lewick signed by the Independent Wichita Wingnuts.

Lewick pitched just one game for the Wingnuts and was cut, but could no longer play amateur during the regular season.

"We played banged up in that month of July, and we had to make a run for that league title," Leo said. "...Our starting position players got no days off."

Entering July, Hays was in third place in the league behind Liberal and Dodge City, but Hays had 10 of its final 16 games at home, finishing 9-1 at Larks Park.

"Our homestands are great," second-year Lark Aaron Cornell said after the season. "We draw in a ton of fans every game, and it's just awesome."

The regular-season finish propelled Hays into the 78th NBC with some momentum, but an unusual opening loss -- 2-1 to the Greeley (Colo.) Grays --  sent the Larks into the elimination bracket.

"We came out, and I don't know if we were nervous or what it was, but we had some jitters early," right-fielder Austin Darby said after the loss. "We settled in, played well defensively and made the plays we needed to."

Three first-inning errors led to both Greeley runs, and the Larks were unable to bounce back, giving Hays its first NBC-opening loss since 2000.

But the Hays offense wasn't going to be held back, and the Larks went on to win six straight games that led to an eventual third-place finish in a 6-2 loss perennial title contender Seattle.

Hays' defense was equally impressive as the Larks never surrendered more than three runs in a game until losing to Seattle.

Joey Begel pitched a complete game in the Larks' first elimination game, and Justin Ziegler and Shawn Lewick (back for the postseason) also pitched what turned out to be complete games as Hays won two of its six straight by the mercy rule. The Larks posted 39 runs in their six straight wins.

But, a telling stat was Hays' 81 baserunners stranded.

"Our guys did square some balls up, and we had everything it took to make a championship run,"  Leo said. "We just didn't made the championship game."

Cornell and Darby, 15 and 31 hits, respectively led the way for Hays' NBC-best 73 hits, 15 doubles and 96 total bases. The Larks were named the top offense, batting .278 as a team. Lewick was named the top pitcher, getting two wins with a 1.29 earned-run average.

Darby entered the Larks's record books for the summer. His 17 doubles for the season put him a tie for eighth place, and his 70 hits puts him in a tie for sixth.