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Top sports stories 2012: Hays Senior Legion ends 31-year state title drought

By KLINT SPILLER

kspiller@dailynews.net

For the Hays Senior Legion baseball team, 2012 was a special year.

The group of ball players, largely from Hays High School, accomplished something that had not been seen in more than 30 years. The Hays Eagles won the state tournament for the first time since 1981, defeating Pittsburg 9-5 in the Class AAA championship game Aug. 4 at Tointon Family Stadium in Manhattan.

The Eagles finished the season 46-10 after going 1-2 as representatives of Kansas in the Mid-South Regional Tournament in New Orleans.

"We did some really great things this summer and some things some teams in the past haven't been able to do, and we are proud of that," said Hays Eagles head coach Brad Kelly following the regional tournament.

Before the state tournament, Kelly told his team, predominately consisting of graduating Hays High seniors, they would keep playing until they were told they could no longer play anymore.

They rallied around that concept, and it took them to New Orleans.

It was a miraculous run, considering Kelly was in his first year at the helm and most legion baseball teams are comprised of the best players from all the schools in a larger city and not just one high school from a smaller city like the Eagles were.

The Eagles' bats were on fire for much of the season, averaging nearly nine runs per contest, and they rode the pitching arm of Josh Heifner, who compiled a 12-2 record, tying for the seventh most wins in legion history.

It was an impressive season for Heifner, who saw limited action during the spring with Hays High. He was used heavily during the summer, though, and he delivered.

"The biggest thing is Coach Kelly," Heifner said. "He gave me the opportunity. He kept using me, and I kept delivering."

The team was loaded with talented players. Shortstop/pitcher Austin Unrein and second baseman Riley Kaus are all over Hays High's record books, and they each played instrumental roles in pushing the Legion to its best finish in more than 30 years.

Unrein and Kaus led the squad with 71 and 70 hits, respectively. Catcher Jarrett Sanders and third baseman Hayden Hutchison tied for the most home runs with eight. Unrein led the squad with 72 runs, 21 doubles and 31 steals (on 31 attempts), and Kaus posted a team-high 54 RBIs.

"It feels great," Kelly said after his team won the state tournament. "I really am speechless. I don't know what to say. These guys have battled all year. They deserve it. They worked their butts off for a lot of years."

Hays played phenomenally throughout the regular season, at one point winning 26 of 27 games from June 9 to July 8.

In the state championship game against Pittsburg, the Eagles' bats were on fire, compiling 14 hits -- their most of their tournament run.

However, their bats chilled at the regional tournament, and the Eagles failed to post a run against the eventual champion from New Orleans and Sandlot Baseball from Edmond, Okla.

"It's been great," Heifner said after getting eliminated from the regional tournament. "I wish we could have gone farther, but I guess our time was up. Like coach said, we are going to play until somebody tells us we have to stop, and us losing today made us stop."