Eagles seek state crown
By AUSTIN COLBERT
By AUSTIN COLBERT
The summer following his sophomore year at Hays High School, Layne Downing played baseball for the Hays Eagles junior Legion team. Then, as the senior Legion team was vying for a state championship, Eagles' coach Brad Kelly decided to call the youngster's number.
"He had asked if I wanted to go up and play at state with them," Downing said. "Then in the championship game they told me to go warm up and I ended up going in and throwing three shutout innings against Pittsburg. I think that's where I got a lot of confidence after that."
The Eagles won state that summer, the first of back-to-back state titles for the senior Legion team. Now Downing, who completed his high school career in the spring and will play at Dodge City Community College, is looking to make it three in a row when the Eagles head to the Class AAA state tournament in Pittsburg this week.
Hays will get the eight team, double elimination tournament underway on Wednesday with an 11 a.m. contest against Salina. The winner will move on to play either Newton or Dodge City in the winner's bracket on Thursday.
Emporia, Arkansas City, Pittsburg and Atchison round out the competing teams.
"If you look statistically at the last couple of years and compare stats to this year, all three teams were pretty close to one another in a lot of the major statistical categories," Kelly said. "These guys know what's happened. In fact, a lot of these guys have been on those teams. I think it's just trying to keep the bar at the same height. We expect to win every time we take the field, regardless of who we are playing."
The Eagles enter the state tournament with a 30-8 record and are coming off wins over Dodge City and Buhler in the zone tournament last week.
Downing, along with Kade Parker, another recent HHS graduate and the spring's Western Athletic Conference player of the year, have been the Eagles' dominant forces all summer. In 10 appearances on the mound, Downing is 9-0 with a 0.94 earned-run average, while Parker is 4-3 in nine appearances with a 2.88 ERA.
Parker also leads the team with a .452 batting average, while Downing is third on the team with a .389 average, well up from the .267 he hit during the spring season with the Indians.
"In the summer I'm just a lot more relaxed, which is why I think I play a lot better," Downing said. "During the spring I wasn't hitting very well at all. I had occasional hits but I felt like I was in a slump the whole year. Then this summer, our first game I just kind of went out there and it was just falling for me. And it has been all summer. So I can't complain about that."
Kelly expects to start Downing in the team's state tournament opener against Salina on Wednesday, with a heavy dose of Parker likely to follow. Outside of being a little more consistent at the plate, Kelly likes the Eagles' level of play and is feeling confident about their chances this week in Pittsburg.
And while this year's team is riding the coattails of the previous two state titles, Kelly believes this team is entering the state tournament with the right frame of mind, one that isn't looking to the past, but focused on the present and getting that third title.
"I don't know if the previous years really matter all that much to these guys. I think a lot of it is they just have confidence and pride in themselves that they can be good baseball players," Kelly said.
"Even if we don't win, it's not like they are going to take those two previous championships away from us. Those are always things we are going to have and we can always say that we did. I don't think we are trying to defend a state title, I just think we are going out to try and get another one."