By RANDY GONZALES
Frank Leo puts it plain and simple: Host families are the key to Larks baseball.
"There's no doubt, it's the backbone of our program," said Leo, in his 32nd year managing the local summer-collegiate team. "Tickled pink, the support we get with our host families program, how they open up their homes to our players."
That wasn't always the case. The host family program started in the mid-1980s, but not many were needed back then. A team could have an unlimited number of players from any school at the time, and the Larks were predominately made up of local players and players from Fort Hays State University.
When the NCAA changed the rule, limiting a summer-collegiate team to four players from any one school, there was a bigger need for host families.
"We had to get more homes," Leo said. "People opened up their homes. Without that host family program, we don't have a Hays Larks team."
Gary and Deb Weatherbee have been a host family for almost 20 years now. It all started when the Larks played Team USA in the finals of the 1995 National Baseball Congress World Series. The couple's three kids saw the game on TV, and said they wanted a Larks player to stay with them.
"They always had a big brother, for 20 years," Deb Weatherbee said.
Two decades later, the kids are grown, but the Weatherbees still have a Lark. This summer, it's catcher Austin Jarvis.
"We've had some good guys stay with us," Gary Weatherbee said. "Really good kids."
Good players, too. Their kids saw to that, Deb Weatherbee said with a grin. They would look up the stats on the players, and choose which one they wanted, she said. They also wanted a position player, so they could cheer for him at all the games, not just when he pitched.
More than one person has pitched in through the years to make the host family program a success, said Barb Leo, Frank's wife. She is in charge of matching up host families now, helped by Mandi Dotts and Heidi Wamser.
"There have been three people that have been the driving force behind (the host family program), in my time," Barb Leo said.
Joni Jackson was in charge, then Nancy Stramel, and now her. Some years it's tougher than others to find host families. Last year, there were 11 spots needed to be filled. This year, just four.
They always find a way to find a player a home, so he feels at home while in Hays.
"We could have a million dollars, and put up kids in posh hotels, but that's not going to work," Frank Leo said. "They got to get a feel for the community, and our host families do that. They do a great job with our kids."