By BRETT MARSHALL
Their trip to the Class 2-1A state baseball tournament in 2010 was brief for the Sublette Larks.
It was their first time qualifying and the 8-0 loss to Ellis in the opening round sent them back to western Kansas in a hurry.
With seven of the nine starters graduating, there was little expectation that the 2011 team would make a return trip to Emporia so soon.
But that's exactly what has happened for coach Ryan Hafen and his Larks.
The Larks (16-7) will get another crack at the title on Friday when they face Salina-Sacred Heart (20-3) in a 1:30 p.m. game at Soden's Grove Field.
"I couldn't be happier for these kids," Hafen said Wednesday. "There were a lot of people who doubted them this year. Typically, a school our size who graduates seven of nine starters would have been expected to have a down year. But they worked hard all year and continued to get better."
The two starters who did return have played a big role in the Larks' success. Seniors Travis Leverett and Joe Lower have carried both the pitching and hitting load for Hafen.
Leverett has posted a 5-2 record while compiling a 3.32 earned-run-average with four complete games and 65 strikeouts in 44 innings. Lower is 4-0 with a 4.34 ERA and has 34 srikeouts in 29 innings. Those two have issued just a combined 18 walks in their 63.1 innings of work.
"They've been our best players and they rose to the occasion for us in the regional tournament," Hafen said.
In a 7-5 semifinal win over Elkhart, Lower pitched six innings, went 3-for-3 with a double and an RBI, while Leverett pitched the clinching seventh inning for a save. Junior Alex White, another mainstay for the Larks this season, was 2-for-4 with a home run.
"Alex played a limited amount for us last year, and he's become a very good leadoff hitter for us," Hafen said. "Last year was his first year to play baseball since Little League and he's now been solid for us at shortstop."
In the 2-1A regional championship game against top-seeded Syracuse, Leverett pitched a complete game in the 8-5 victory. He also went 3-for-5 with a home run while Lower went 3-for-4 with a double, two home runs and five RBIs. White was 3-for-5 with a home run and two RBIs.
"I think last year we were just happy to go (to state)," Hafen said. "This year, the kids that went; their mindset is different. This year they want to make a statement. We know what we're up against in Sacred Heart. They're one of those good private schools and two of their losses have been to TMP (Class 3A regional champs in western Kansas). We're excited for the challenge."
And while his big three have been the engine for the Larks, Hafen knows the other players on the roster have done more than their share in making this another memorable season.
"We have relied on our three main guys," Hafen said. "But all of our kids have stepped in with very little varsity experience and made big contributions. They love playing together and just enjoy playing the game."
In other first round games, Pittburg-Colgan (20-3) faces Leavenworth-Immaculate (13-8) at 11 a.m.; Sedan (23-0) meets Mission Valley (10-13) at 4 p.m. and Minneola/Ashland (16-3) goes against Rosalia-Flinthills (16-5) at 6:30 p.m. Semifinal games are set for 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on Saturday with the championship game slated to start at 5:30 p.m. following the 3 p.m. third-place game.