MHS looks for return to state

By Joel Jellison

Derek Francis and Brooks Lindsay remember it well.

As sophomores in 2010, the Manhattan High baseball team went to the Class 6A state tournament, only to lose in the first round.

The Indians seemed primed to make it back to state last year, loaded with two Division I fielders and a DI pitcher, but they were nipped by Lawrence in the regional final in Manhattan.

Now, both players say they are hungry to make a return to state, which will be played at Hoglund Ballpark on the Kansas University Campus.

“I’d do anything to go back to state,” Lindsay said. “It was so much fun my sophomore year and such a good experience.”

But first things first, the Indians have to beat Topeka High on Wednesday at Norvell Field, and then beat the winner of Junction City and Leavenworth to advance to the state tournament.

And Francis said last year’s loss to Lawrence is still fresh in their minds.

“Sophomore year we went in and faced a team that ended up winning the state title, and that was a good experience,” he said. “But to have Lawrence come in and beat us last year was tough, and we have that in the back of our heads.”

It’s been an interesting season for the Indians, whose 16-4 record this season almost seemed like a down year. MHS coach Don Hess admits it’s because the program has set the bar for itself so high in recent years, that early losses in the season seemed uncharacteristic.

But Hess said they expected to be a quality team this season.

“We felt like we had a lot of good players coming back and we felt like we were going to get an infusion of good, young talent as well,” he said. “There are some areas it has taken us a little while to gel, but all in all, we expected to be competitive.”

The Indians came into the year looking to replace a pair of outfielders in Kyle Speer and Ryan Wilkinson — with Speer going to play at Kansas State and Wilkinson to play at a junior college — a second baseman in Dusty Maas, also at K-State, and pitcher Thomas Olson, who is pitching for Dartmouth.

Francis said they had a lot to replace, but he thinks they have done a solid job in filling their roles.

“We had guys that were great baseball players, but the guys we brought in to replace them have been great,” he said. “It’s hard to fill the pitcher role and we have a lot of position guys pitching. It’s hard to replace a Thomas Olson that’s a pitcher only and comes out throwing 90 every game, but I think we filled in nicely.”

The Indians knew where they sat with position players entering this season, but the questions were centered among the pitching staff.

MHS ended up turning to senior infielders Derek and Trey Francis, along with junior TJ Giller and a host of sophomores.

Hess said the success of the sophomores has been great, and he thinks they have a few guys who could start on any day.

“It speaks well to the future because we are getting guys some experience for the future, but we feel like we have three No. 1s right now,” he said. “If we had to give the ball to one of them on any day, we have the utmost confidence that they will get the job done.”

With a number of big seniors gone from last year’s team, this year’s squad had to form its own identity around a new group of seniors and a number of young up-and-comers.

At times this season, players like Derek Francis and Lindsay have gone out to the mound in high-pressure situations to calm the pitchers. While other seniors like Taylor Hilgers, Brooks DeBord and Trey Francis, all play out their leadership roles in the field and in the dugout.

Hess said they have had to work to get to the point they are now. But everything seems to be coming together at the right time.

“That’s been one of the things that has been a work in progress,” he said. “We had some three-year starters up until this year, and this year these guys had to emerge from behind those guys, and it has taken awhile for us to form our own team identity. Right about now we are starting to get comfortable about who we are and the way we play.”

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