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Larks in the hunt for second

By AUSTIN COLBERT

acolbert@dailynews.net

Aaron Cornell is an old man by Larks' standards. A rare fourth-year player for Hays out of Oklahoma State University, he has been a mainstay for the program, including its run to Jayhawk League titles the past two seasons.

But this season has been different. Amid a rash of injuries, the Larks have limped to a 19-11 record, 14-11 in the Jayhawk League, following Friday's non-leauge win over Fort Collins, Colo.

"It's been tough. It's a lot different. For me being up here four years, it's been one of the roughest starts we've ever had," said Cornell, who missed the first 11 games of the Larks' season as OSU advanced to the Super Regionals of the NCAA tournament.

"Early on, they kept calling me. I was taking a week off before coming up here. They had a couple guys go down. Arms went down. I had to pitch. I haven't pitched since high school. That's just where we were."

While the Larks are still far from fully healthy, the feeling of despair that might have gripped them during their June slide has been replaced with a growing sense of optimism. With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Larks stand neck-and-neck with Derby for second place in the Jayhawk League, a final series between the teams starting Friday in Hays.

For manager Frank Leo, the main difference between then and now is on the mound. Starting pitching plagued the Larks for a time earlier this season, but as it has gotten better, so has the team as a whole.

"Our pitching is getting stronger. We have got some arms in here. And our bullpen has kind of been a strength for us," Leo said. "Our starting pitchers -- we need to get quality starts out of them down the stretch. They got to give us six good innings, keep us in the ball game. We can't use a lot of pen every night. We have a good pen but we can't overuse them. So key down the stretch is we have to get quality starts."

Before the Larks begin their key series with Derby, they have a three-game series with league-leading Wellington. The first game is 7 p.m. today in Wellington.

The Heat are 30-4 overall, 21-3 in league play, seven games ahead of Derby's 14-10 mark. With so few conference games remaining on the schedule, the likelihood of either Derby or Hays catching Wellington is virtually zero. The Larks understand this and know they are playing for second place in the Jayhawk League, which should guarantee them a spot in the second round (final 32) of the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita at the end of the month.

"Winning a couple (at Wellington) are huge, because that will put separation between us and Derby," Cornell said. "We got two weeks left and me and a couple of the older guys, we talked about it over and over again with the new guys to the program. I think we are going in the right direction right now. I think it's going to turn out well for us."

NOTES -- Leo expects to have Michael Burns back in the lineup today after he hurt his knee against Liberal last week. ... Kevin Czarnecki, a Fort Hays State University product, is expected to miss the Wellington series after taking a line drive off his foot in batting practice. ... Shane Willoughby will sit out the remainder of the summer to recover from an ankle injury. ... Prior to the start of the Larks' game against Derby on Friday, the teams will complete the remainder of their June 22 game in Derby that was suspended because of weather. The game will start at 5:30 p.m. at Larks Park, the game resuming in the bottom of the sixth inning with the Larks leading 7-6.