By CONOR NICHOLL email@example.com
The Hays Larks had just eight available positions players for Wednesday's season opener against the Lindsborg Knights. A familiar face for Hays High School and Larks' fans, Doug Dreher, filled the ninth slot in the lineup and played right field in the 14-1 victory. Dreher, who turns 31 in July, returns to the Larks this season not as an outfielder, but a coach.
Dreher, who went 3-for-4 with a two-run triple to right-center in the emergency role Wednesday, will likely return to the bench as a coach for this weekend's series against the Denver Cougars at Larks Park. Hays (1-0) will play a doubleheader tonight beginning at 6 p.m. and will have single game Saturday starting at 6 p.m.
Dreher, a two-time first team all-state player in 1996 and 1997, is one of seven players in the 29-year Frank Leo era named first team twice at Hays High.
Dreher, the only five-year Lark, played for University of Kansas before he joined the professional ranks, one of eight HHS graduates to play professional baseball. He played independent ball for several years and went to the Czech Republic and Australia in 2007 before returning home to coach the Hays Junior Legion last summer.
"Doug will bring a lot to us," Leo said. "His experience as a hitter will be tremendous for these guys. He is a veteran guy and I think he is going to help these hitters tremendously just in maybe approach and the mental part of the game and I think maybe the physical. Doug hasn't been out of the game that long and he has played a lot of baseball and it's kind of fun to watch him play again."
Dreher is HHS' all-time leader in doubles (24), ranks third in hits (82) and third in runs scored (77). With the Larks, Dreher hit hit .266 on the 1999 team and finished second to Albert Pujols with 25 RBIs.
In 2000, Dreher had one of the best offensive seasons in Larks history. He batted .327, third-best on the squad, with 74 hits, 17 doubles, 50 runs and 49 RBIs. He ranks in the top-11 in the Larks' annuals for a single season in hits, doubles, runs and RBIs and stands third in hits. The Larks finished 37-27 overall, lost their first game at the National Baseball Congress World Series before they reeled off seven straight wins and finished runner-up to Liberal. At KU, Dreher holds the record for most sacrifices by a junior (11). In 2000, he led the Jayhawks in doubles (14) and RBIs (48). Overall, he ranks third all-time in sacs with 24.
"He brings a wealth of experience to us," Leo said.
Another Hays High product his first apperance of the season on Wednesday. Right-hander Andy Lewton, the 2006 Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year and a two-time first team all-state player, pitched a scoreless fourth inning in the victory.
Lewton attended Barton County Community College and started three games, going 1-1 with a team-best .235 opponents' batting average and a 12/8 strikeout to walk rate in 13 innings before he suffered a season-ending injury. Lewton didn't pitch for Fort Hays State University this spring.
On Wednesday, Lewton, throwing competitively for the first time in over a year, loaded the bases with one out on two walks and a hit by pitch. Then, he coaxed a ground ball back to the mound. Lewton threw home for the forceout. The right-hander ended the inning when he struck out Fort Hays outfielder and Lindsborg leadoff hitter Nash Smith.
"I think his velocity was good," Leo said. Andy will always compete. He is a very good competitor. He was that way for us at Hays High and I think he had some adrenaline going there tonight because it has been almost two full seasons since he got on the mound and he said the key will be tomorrow, We will see how he feels tomorrow afternoon after throwing today but I thought his velocity was good. The curveball, changeup those are both feel pitches and that is not just something that you are going to pick up after two years. He will develop those as the summer goes."
Right-hander Chase Johnson delivered an impressive 2008 for the Larks. Pumping low to mid-90s fastball. Johnson finished with a 2.94 ERA and 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings and was named one of the Jayhawk League's top 10 prospects by Baseball America. Johnson, used mainly as a closer, was placed in the rotation at year's end and tossed eight innings of one-run, two-hit ball in an elimanation game at the NBC World Series.
This spring, he was dominant again for South Mountain (Ariz.) Community Collge, delivering a 0-0 record, two saves, 3.63 earned run average, a 35/16 strikeout to walk rate and just 14 hits allowed in 22 1/3 innings.
Johnson, who could be picked high in the Major League Baseball draft next week, was his usual self in the eighth inning Thursday. He struck out the side and permitted one walk.
"Chase Johnson did what Chase Johnson does best," Leo said. "He just brings it to you and challenges hitters. It is going to be interesting. If the end of our game can get taken care of by some other people, we may try to start getting Chase a few more innings here and there and maybe getting him honed to be a starter a little sooner this summer."
"There is no doubt (Chase will get drafted)," Leo said. "He has got an arm, he is a good-sized kid. We can very well lose him, it just depends on what Chase wants to do."
The Larks roster has been in flux for most of the spring but should solidify this weekend when several players come to Hays. The Larks have just one shortstop on the roster in Andrew Heck, but Shawn Wilson, a late pickup, should join the team tonight. Wilson attended San Mateo (Calif.) College and was named first team all-conference as San Mateo won its conference with a 33-13 record.
Wilson, likely to hit at the top of the order with the Larks, batted a team-high .413 with 31 steals this spring. Joe Huwer, a starting catcher/outfieler with the Larks in 2008, should be in Hays on Saturday. Outfielder Codi Harshman from the University of Arizona will join the team Monday and University of Missouri's Ben Turner comes next Thursday.
"We lost some personnel, but I still we just have a good bulk of that personnel in that we recruited and we have some additions coming yet on the offensive end," Leo said. "We are gradually going to get the position players up, but we have leeway for one more position player. The roster right now, it's a good roster, but we are still a little thin in numbers."
Larks Park changes
The ballpark underwent several changes before Wednesday's home opener. The City of Hays took out the green chairbacks near the center aisle and painted the bleachers light gray. The ballpark, used for over 100 games a year with Fort Hays, the Larks and summer baseball teams, could see more changes.
"They are slowly trying to put some money back into it," Leo said. "They sealed that whole grandstand with idea that if that works. They will test that over with the summer. This fall, they are going to go down underneath and clean that whole thing up, locker rooms, better bathroom facilities. I think they are going to do the backstop."
Scouting the Cougars
Last year, the Larks and Denver opened the season splitting a doubleheader in Hays. Denver finished 29-30 and 15-11 in the Rocky Mountain Baseball League. The Cougars are 5-3 this season. Denver has pitcher Tyler Sturdevant, a Littleton, Col. native who pitched in a relief role for the Cougars last season and was used as the closer in the NBC World Series. Sturdevant, who hasn't pitched for Denver this spring, posted a 7-5 record and 6.75 ERA in 88 innings for New Mexico State this spring.