A momentous Hays High baseball season ended painfully for the Indians in Tuesday’s Class 5A regional final.
After 20 wins, a Western Athletic Conference championship and Diamond Classic title, the Indians came up short in their bid for a state tournament berth, falling 6-2 to WAC rival Great Bend at Indian Field.
The Indians finished 20-2, with both losses coming to Great Bend, in the final season of Hays High coach Frank Leo’s illustrious 39-year career at HHS.
“It is tough today,” Leo said. “We had our sights pretty high on this season. We had a great bunch of players. It’s hard to swallow. We felt like we had a chance to win a state championship. Great Bend played outstanding today. They played better than us.
“When it’s a single-elimination tournament, you better not have any letdowns. We had some letdowns today and they took advantage of it.”
The Indians, the No. 2 seed in the west bracket, were held in check by Great Bend pitcher Townshend Kurth, who allowed just three hits.
“When he’s pounding the zone and not walking anybody, you’ve got to get after everything you’re going to try to get done offensively,” Leo said. “The key was he pounded the zone and got leadoff outs.”
The Panthers (10-10) jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning on Eddie Bujanda’s two-run double. Trey Riggs knotted up the game with a two-run single down the third-base line in the fourth but Kurth kept Hays High off the board the rest of the way.
“I thought when we tied it up 2-2, we had a real good chance,” Leo said. “Our ball club’s had some good come-from-behind wins.”
Hays left two runners on base in the fifth inning and the Panthers regained the lead on Kurth’s RBI single in the top of the sixth.
Great Bend, who will move on to the 5A state tournament in Wichita, added three insurance runs in the sixth.
Riggs went 6.1 innings before reaching the 105-pitch limit. He gave up five earned runs on six hits with four walks while striking out four.
The Indians advanced to the final with a 9-3 win over Newton earlier Tuesday. Freshman Dylan Dreiling, Leo’s grandson, hit a grand slam and Riggs delivered a 3-run homer in the win.
Leo leaves the Indians after notching 576 victories, 18 WAC championships, 12 sub-state titles and two state runner-up finishes.
“It’s tough to say goodbye, but it’s got to happen sometime,” Leo said. “You can’t go on forever. I just feel good about what we’re leaving behind. This program has a great tradition and we’re looking forward to seeing that tradition continue. Coach (Dustin) Dreher will do a tremendous job with this program. He’s been a very loyal assistant to me for 15 years. He’s going to have a good nucleus, but we graduate some great people.
“I’ll miss it. Hays High baseball has been my life. I’ve got that maroon and gold in me and it will still be in me. It always will.”
It was also the final game at Hays High for Indians’ pitching coach Keith Harper, Leo’s assistant for all 39 years at HHS.
“Coach Harper, I can’t say enough about what he’s done for this program,” Leo said. “He’s been an outstanding assistant. I feel blessed to have him. I feel blessed to have my whole coaching staff. They’re loyal guys. You surround yourself with good people you can trust.”
Leo credited his “core four” seniors Riggs, Willie Sennett, Palmer Hutchison and Cody Petersen for helping pave the way for the Indians’ 20-win season.
"I watched those guys grow up," he said. "They’ve been very supportive of me and my program.
"I feel badly for these guys. They wanted it so bad. They wanted it so bad as a senior group. But the seniors got the younger guys to believe.”
Leo said it will be an adjustment not coaching the Indians, but he’ll still be paying close attention to the program.
“It’s going to be tough not being out there, making decisions and competing between the white lines, watching kids compete — the heartaches they go through sometimes, the excitement when goods things happen,” Leo said. “It’s an up-and-down thing.
“I'm looking forward to following the team. It’s going to be a little bit of a transition, but I look forward to following the team and being an Indian supporter for the rest of my time.”