Two years ago, the Aviators were just an idea in the head of Kris Wheeler.
But Wheeler didn’t want to run just another summer baseball team. If he was going to own a team, it was going to be run with a purpose.
After eventually landing in Haysville, the Aviators are now making Wheeler’s vision a reality this week in the National Baseball Congress World Series. The team won its second straight game on Sunday evening, defeating the Puerto Rico National Team 4-1, to advance to Tuesday’s semifinals.
"We felt like we could win some baseball games, and that’s extremely important to us, but we wanted to do it the right way," Wheeler said. "We wanted to bring on guys that believe in what we do and who we are.”
It was the 17th victory in the past 20 games for the Aviators, who rode a strong outing from starting pitcher Andrew Clemen. After struggling early to find the strike zone, Clemen recovered to toss 7 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run and giving up four hits.
Jake Baxter, who has played the past two summers with the Aviators, said that community support in Haysville is still growing. While being a new program has its perks, it also has drawbacks.
"It’s a lot harder to get people behind you because we don’t have that history," Baxter, the team’s designated hitter, said. "We knew coming out that there’s not a reputation there. So being a second-year guy, I feel like I’m here to try to give us that reputation."
Wheeler enlisted the help of coach Gabe Grinder, who was ecstatic about the vision and opportunity Wheeler was offering.
"We just invest in these guys," Wheeler said. "We’re plugged into their lives."
Grinder said the result has been an undeniable chemistry on the field and he believes it’s a large reason why the Aviators are in the midst of a breakout campaign.
"Everyone loves a winner," Grinder said. "It gets a whole lot easier to get better caliber players when we win like this. Plus we can bring guys back when we win like this because they love it so much."
All the Aviators needed on Sunday was a 3-run outburst in the third inning. Cody Sharrow led off with a double, then scored on the next at-bat when Evan VanSumeren plated him with a double of his own. Jacob Lamoreaux made it three in a row with another double to score VanSumeren, then scored himself on a sacrifice.
That was enough to send the Aviators through the semifinals, where they will meet another established program, the San Diego Force, with a berth to the championship game on the line.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the tournament, Wheeler says the program’s prospects are looking up.
They are moving up to a more competitive league, jumping from the Walter Johnson League to the Jayhawk League. The team is rapidly improving, and people are starting to take notice in Haysville.
Wheeler’s investment is beginning to pay dividends.
"I feel like Haysville has been really good to us, so now it’s our turn to give back to them," Baxter said. "Hopefully by winning like this, it’s going to help us going into next summer and people are going to want to come out and support us."