By AUSTIN COLBERT
First time Hays Larks center fielder Michael Burns, a freshman from Littleton, Colo., clearly remembers his first batting practice as a member of the Wichita State University baseball team. He faced right-hander Sam Tewes, an eventual freshman All-American for the Shockers, and his 92 m.p.h. fastball.
"I ended up striking out twice in my first two at-bats in college," Burns said. "I redshirted so I didn't touch the field at all. Just watching those guys play, I learned so much. It was the best year of baseball I ever had and I didn't play."
Burns ended up in Hays this summer because of another Shocker playing for the Larks, junior second baseman Zair Koeiman. Koeiman, in his third season with the Larks, is a native of Curacao, located off the coast of Venezuela, and former player at Eastern Oklahoma State.
Since Burns is new to the Hays area and the Larks, he has often gone to Koeiman for guidance, as do many of the new faces manager Frank Leo has acquired this season.
"I asked Zair in the fall about Hays and he said, 'If you play your best, you can play here,'" Burns said. "He's always been a big influence on me coming to Hays and now that I'm here he is definitely a leader on the team and definitely a leader to me."
Koeiman, along with fourth-year Lark Aaron Cornell (Oklahoma State), are considered the top leaders for Hays, depending on who you ask. Koeiman has been an integral part of the team's Jayhawk League titles the past two seasons and its third- and seventh-place finishes at the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita.
Leo said Koeiman is playing about the same as ever this season -- he is batting .333 in 10 games while dealing with a groin injury suffered against Dodge City on June 10 -- but is proving to be much more of a leader after his first year with Wichita State.
"I think the leadership thing is the biggest thing. He has played here three years and played at a higher level and is trying to come back here and teach us how to win," Leo said. "He is showing a little more leadership. ... Obviously being out two weeks he is not on top of his game. But he will get better as we go."
The Larks are looking toward their leaders now more than ever.
A program built on winning, Hays lost seven of eight games after a 9-1 start to the season and as Leo puts it "are letting one slip and we are slipping further down in the (Jayhawk League) standings."
But one thing both Koeiman and Burns experienced last year at Wichita State was adversity and change. The 2014 season was the first for WSU without Gene Stephenson as coach since he arrived in 1977. Todd Butler, formerly the recruiting coordinator at Arkansas, took his place.
WSU finished the season 31-28, with Koeiman having appeared in 37 games (22 starts) with a .225 batting average.
"Coming from a junior college, it was a big difference. It was a great experience. The coaches were great. The facilities were amazing. Everything was structured. We practiced every single day almost," Koeiman said of his first season at WSU.
"At Wichita State we had quite a few leaders and I learned from them. I felt because I've been here for three years and most of the guys haven't been here yet playing for the Larks, I felt like me and some other guys -- like Aaron Cornell, Nick Goza -- we have some leadership. And coming from a DI with all those leaders I had on my team, it definitely helped me a lot."
As Koeiman has battled back from his groin injury, Burns has been red hot. He is the only player to have appeared in all of the team's first 22 games and leads the Larks with a .423 batting average after Friday's game with El Dorado, including 41 hits (also a team high) and is third on the team with 14 runs batted in.
And if it weren't for Koeiman, the Larks might not have Burns' bat at their disposal.
"I just have fun coming out here every day," Burns said. "These people are awesome. It makes it really fun to come out and I'm really excited all the time. Taking it from WSU to here, I work on the game I play at WSU. If that's laying a bunt down or sac-ing, I work on that game here. And it pays off. We will get there and start winning."