By CONOR NICHOLL
WICHITA -- All summer, the Hays Larks had to fight to earn a berth in the NBC World Series. They started 9-9 in league play, and, in mid-July, the Larks weren't in strong position for a bid. However, they went 11-5 against the Jayhawk League down the stretch and solidified an NBC spot on the final day of the regular season.
The comeback attitude stayed with Hays in a 6-5, 12-inning win against Crestwood (Ill.) in a first-round victory on Monday night at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. The Larks trailed 4-1 entering the bottom of the third and never led until the game's final play. They eventually won on Cody Gougler's bases loaded, walk-off single in the bottom of the 12th.
"That's the way we have done it all summer," Gougler said. "It's just repetition. I guess that's just the way we got to get it done, but at the end of the game, we have got more than they do and that's all that matters. What a fun game. If all of the rest of them are like this, the fans and the city of Hays are going to very, very proud of us."
Hays (29-16) will play in a winnners' bracket game at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Last summer, Hays, with a team that included Gougler, Hays missed the World Series for the first time since 1991.
"Him and a couple other guys came back for a reason: to get the Hays Larks back to this World Series," manager Frank Leo said. "He stepped up big tonight in Larks tradition, a veteran like he is, and got it done. There is no doubt when the ball left his bat that it was a game-winner. Very, very happy for Cody Gougler. He is a great kid. He is a great ambassador for our team."
At first, Gougler was surprised with his first look at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Hays' game was originally scheduled for 7:30 p.m., but started at 8:43 p.m. when the previous game also went into extra innings. The game time temperature was 100 degrees, but a large crowd, especially on Hays' third base side, was still at the park.
"For the first-round game, I didn't expect there to be this many people, especially on Monday night with the game getting started so late," Gougler said. "This is truly, truly a special place, and it's always going to hold a special place in my heart. I am glad I get to come back here and keep playing on Thursday."
The Panthers scored four runs in the first three innings against Larks starter Justin Ziegler, who went 4-0 with a 1.66 earned-run average during the regular season.
Ziegler allowed five runs in 42‚—3 innings, but the bullpen -- Matt Schmit, Vincent Littleman and Michael Burchett -- allowed just three hits in 71‚—3 scoreless innings.
"Without what our bullpen did, we don't win that ball game," Leo said.
The Larks had single runs in the first, third, sixth, seventh and eighth to tie the game.
In the eighth, Jon Ryan led off with a single. After a bunt, Cam Brown drove a game-tying single between first and second. Burchett (1-1), with a 1.32 ERA and 10 saves in the regular season, earned the win with four scoreless innings. It was easily his longest outing for Hays and one inning off his longest ever in college.
"I didn't care how long we had to go," Burchett said. "I was just going to give it everything I had and throw strikes and let the defense work, and the defense did really well for me."
In the 11th, the Larks had Brandon Dixon on first with two outs. Leo pinch-hit MacKenzie Handel for Tito Andino. The Larks put a hit-and-run on and Dixon was picked off first base.
The next inning, Leo wanted the speedy Andino to lead off, but Handel had already been announced, and had to stay in. Still, Handel led off with a single and newcomer Thomas Clay came in to pinch-run. After a balk and two intentional walks, Gougler lined an 0-1 pitch between first and second for the walk-off hit; his first walk-off as a Lark. After he crossed first base, Gougler, wearing a big smile, turned toward his teammates. Andino mobbed him first, followed by the rest of the team.
"I know I couldn't have done it without my teammates," Gougler said. "I just happened to be the guy up there to get it done. I believe anybody could have. It's just a great feeling."