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Indian baseball ready for season opener Thursday

By KLINT SPILLER

kspiller@dailynews.net

Snow stuck to the grass in patches. Pools of water and clumps of exposed dirt and mud spotted the outfield.

The weather hasn't been kind to area baseball fields. Fortunately for Hays High School, the Indians new turf infield has been a life saver.

"We can get so much more done in practice with our drill work, because the field is always prepared," said Hays High head coach Frank Leo. "It's in A-1 shape from drill to drill and minute to minute."

Practice has proceeded on schedule for the infielders, but it's been a different story for the outfielders, whose only real outfield practice has come when the team occasionally practices at Larks Park.

Senior center fielder Daniel Bittel said he's not too concerned. He has started at center since he was a freshman, and between spring and summer, has plenty of practice at the position. However, he said it's definitely been a disappointment.

"We would have liked to have more work in the outfield in the preseason, but I think we'll be all right," Bittel said.

Weather has wreaked havoc on baseball players' preparation this spring, but Bittel said the team will be ready for its opener Thursday when Hays High travels to Pratt for a doubleheader at 4 p.m.

Hays High returned a strong nucleus this season, despite graduating a number of top players from last season's 20-3 squad that went undefeated through the Western Athletic Conference and qualified for the Class 5A state tournament.

The Indians' top returner, senior Hayden Hutchison, is coming off a particularly strong 2012. He was the WAC Player of the Year in the spring, was one of the top players on the Hays Senior Legion team's state championship squad and was named to the 2013 Rawlings Pre-Season All-Central Region Baseball Team as an honorable mention selection.

He hit .456 last season with 16 doubles, both team highs. On the mound, Hutchison finished 6-1 with a 3.12 earned-run average and struck out 33 batters versus nine walks.

"He deserves what he's got," Leo said. "He's worked at his game. He has some talent, but talent will catch up with you unless you work at it. He's put in the work."

With Austin Unrein gone via graduation, Hutchison, who started at third but played shortstop when Unrein was on the mound, will move to shortstop full-time.

The Indians also will rely on Hutchison to be the workhorse on the mound since they graduated all other pitchers who threw more than one inning last season.

"We have a horse coming back in Hayden, and we are going to have to ride him," Leo said.

Leo said juniors Kade Parker and Layne Downing also should start. They didn't see any varsity pitching time in 2012, but they had solid summers on the Junior Legion team. Downing even provided relief at the Senior Legion's tournament and was instrumental in the championship game.

"We expect them to step up," Leo said. "They've got to perform for us. For us to be successful, they've got to take the reins."

Other returners include Bittel, senior catcher Jake Sedbrook, senior first baseman Chandler Rule and junior third baseman/outfielder Zack Legleiter.

"I think we are really excited," Bittel said. "Chan (Rule), Hayden (Hutchison) and I, we've been getting varsity experience since we were all freshmen. Hopefully, some of that carries over to our leadership this year."

Outside of them, plenty of uncertainties remain with this year's squad. Senior infielder Chance Pitcock transferred this year from Russell, and Leo said he expects him to have an impact.

"Chance Pitcock, who runs like a deer, played baseball over at Russell," Leo said. "He's here now and making the transition. We like what we see. We've got some tweaking to do with him, but he's going to be an interesting player."

Leo said he's going to mix and match to see what works best.

"We'll learn as we go. We are excited to see what we've got. Things are probably going to change. What we do in Game 1 and 2 on Thursday may be totally different when we get to Games 19 and 20," Leo said.