Next summer will bring a new chapter for the Hays Larks and mark the end of an era for the Jayhawk Summer Collegiate Baseball League.
For the first time since 1976, the Larks are changing leagues. They will become members of Kansas Collegiate League Baseball in the 2019 season.
The move was triggered by the exit of four teams from the Jayhawk League in August, leaving it with just four members at the time.
The Larks will be joined in the transition to the KCLB by the Dodge City A’s and Liberal Bee Jays, marking the end of a 42-year run for the prestigious Jayhawk League.
Larks’ manager Frank Leo said the move brings mixed emotions.
“It is a sad day for the Jayhawk League,” said Leo, who didn’t rule out a possible resurrection of the league at some point in the future. “It’s been there since 1976, and the Hays Larks have been part of it since its inception. It is tough to see the league go by the wayside.”
In addition to the three Jayhawk League teams, the 10-team KCLB is comprised of the Wellington Heat, Kansas Cannons (Augusta), Clearwater Outlaws, Park City Rangers, Valley Center Mud Daubers, McPherson Pipeliners and Kansas Curve (Wichita).
The future of the Jayhawk League was put into doubt when the Derby Twins, Great Bend Bat Cats, El Dorado Broncos and Haysville Aviators announced last month they were leaving for the Sunflower Collegiate League.
Attempts to bring new teams to the Jayhawk League were unsuccessful, prompting Hays, Liberal and Dodge City to accept an invitation to the Kansas Collegiate League, in part to stay eligible for the National Baseball Congress World Series.
“It’s a young league. It’s up and coming,” Leo said. “It gives us the only option to try and continue to play in the NBC World Series. We had a dialogue with several teams in Colorado and those talks will be ongoing to maybe try and get the Jayhawk League going again sometime in the future.”
The KCLB will be divided into two divisions. The Larks will be joined in a three-team division with Dodge City and Liberal, while the other seven teams will make up the other division.
Hays will play Liberal and Dodge City eight to 10 times in the season, Leo said. The Larks will also play two four-game series at home against teams from the other division, and will play eight interdivisional road games, consisting of four two-game series.
Leo said the Larks will have to fill out the schedule with some non-league games.
“We’re going to have to continue to add Colorado teams,” Leo said. “We’re typically used to playing about 45 games. We’ll get about 30 to 32 games in a league setting.”
The KCLB, formerly known as the Walter Johnson League, was established in 1999. The league is awarded multiple automatic berths into the NBC World Series. The Wellington Heat placed third in the NBC World Series last summer.
“This is the most impactful move of this generation for Kansas summer collegiate baseball,” KCLB owner and commissioner Sheldon Howell said in a news release. “Truly, for once in a long time, the strongest organizations from the last decade are playing in one league all summer long.
"This move will breed the strongest competition and demand professionalism across the board — something I believe Kansas baseball was in desperate need of. I look forward to partnering with these prestigious organizations and continuing on the mission I set out on when taking over the KCLB. We will continue to be the highest quality league in Kansas and work towards becoming one of the most renowned in the country.”
Leo, who just completed his 36th season as Larks' manager, said it's a relief to have a plan in place for next summer after the uncertainty brought by last month’s announcement of the four teams leaving the Jayhawk League.
“We’ve spent a lot of hours on the phone with Liberal and Dodge trying to decide what to do,” Leo said. “It’s good to know that we don’t have to go independent, which would have been one of the other options to try and fill the schedule.
“This league is going to be kind of refreshing, I guess. It’s going to be a lot of new faces and some old faces. Sometimes change is good. Hate to see the Jayhawk League go by the wayside, but the best option to stay in the NBC is to join this league.”