Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Haysville Aviators have come a long way in a short time

In their second year of existence, the Haysville Aviators reached the final six of the National Baseball Congress World Series.

And this year they’ve done even better.

The Aviators are soaring. With a roster full of players from mostly-obscure colleges, Haysville has reached the semifinals of the World Series after a 14-3 win over the Valley Center Diamond Dawgs on Thursday night at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.

This third-year team, which started in Maize in 2013, has a chance to win it all after winning the Jayhawk League championship this season.

Heady stuff for such a young franchise. And the Aviators’ young coach, Gabe Grinder, is aptly named.

“Really, we’ve kind of found a niche this year in the players we were looking to recruit,” said Grinder, who has been with the Aviators since their inception and is an assistant coach at West Virginia Wesleyan. “Before we were kind of going for the Division I guys and to be honest with you it just wasn’t exactly what we needed. We needed some older guys, whether they were D1, D2, NAIA or junior college. Now we have a bunch of guys who have been out on the field and played a lot of baseball and it’s equated to a lot of wins for us this summer.”

The Aviators are a baseball team Google loves with players from places like Panhandle State, Georgia Regents, Johnson Wales-Providence, Millersville, Spring Arbor, Eastfield College, Southwest Illinois, Heartland College, Tiffin and Missouri S&T.

The Aviators’ best player this summer has been infielder-utility player Tyler Tokunaga from Hawaii Pacific, an NCAA Division II school located in Honolulu. He batted .320 as a junior in 2015 but was not drafted. He feels like he’s fighting for his baseball life and he’s putting up a great fight.

Tokunaga, who who had two hits and two walks Thursday night, was the leading hitter in the Jayhawk League this season at .384. He stole 14 bases and led Haysville in runs, hits and doubles.

“We kind of picked Tyler up out of nowhere,” Grinder said. “We were just looking to fill a utility spot after some attrition and when I talked to his coach at Hawaii Pacific I told him we’d do our best to get Tyler out here. We were able to make it happen and he’s been a great player for us. And those are really the type of guys who are on this team. We have a bunch of good guys.”

Tokunaga, born and raised in Hawaii, said he had never heard of Haysville before this summer, but was happy to finally get on a summer team after attempts to find a team closer to home failed.

“It’s fun to just get out and play some ball,” he said. “I’d say I had an average year in school and the team struggled some. We just had a stretch where we didn’t play well.”

Kansas has provided some culture shock, Tokunaga said, but it’s also put a charge into his bat.

“It’s been good player with these guys,” he said. “And I’d love to get a chance to play pro ball someday. It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid.”

Haysville racked up 15 hits against Valley Center, including four by catcher Steve Coe, who had just one hit in six tournament at-bats previously.

The Aviators rallied from a 3-0 deficit Wednesday night to beat the St. Joseph (Mo.) Mustangs, scoring twice in the bottom of the ninth for a walk-off win.

The team’s general manager, Grant Jones, is a youth minister who said he spends much of his time on the faith aspect of the team. He’s a member of the Aviator Church, he said, but the team’s nickname is a throwback to the Wichita Aviators, a professional team that played from 1929-32 and was affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs.

“My baseball background,” Jones said, “is that I played in Little League.”

He takes care of the day-to-day duties and game administration and said he has given Grinder freedom in putting together a roster.

Grinder admits it didn’t go too well in the first year.

“That first year wasn’t very good and it was a growing process,” Grinder said. “I wasn’t ready to be a head coach and I wasn’t ready to recruit.”

Team founder Chris Wheeler, who moved to Richmond in the spring to run a sports ministry, stuck with Grinder. They learned to recruit together. Judging from where the team is now, it’s been a fast learning curve.

“The level of talent has grown so much,” Grinder said. “We’ve learned to do a pretty good job of finding the guys who fit.”

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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