By BRETT MARSHALL
When the Garden City Buffaloes' football team opens its 2013 season a week later than normal on Sept. 6 at Bixby, Okla., Head Coach Brian Hill knows that his squad will once again be at a disadvantage in more ways than one.
But perhaps just as important is that entering his fourth year at the Buffs' helm, the GCHS program is now owned completely by Hill, his staff and this group of players, especially the 26 seniors on the roster.
"When we first got started I told them (today's seniors) that in four years we would be judged in how far we've come," Hill said at the end of the Buffs' three-hour evening practice at Buffalo Stadium on the opening day of fall drills. "It's the most seniors we've had, and these kids have been with us all summer in preparation for this season. They will be the catalyst for how good we'll be."
For the first three days of practice, the Buffs have to go without pads and so the emphasis was and is working on timing patterns, running, blocking techniques and running accurate routes. That was the offensive pace. On defense, it was all about running to the ball, picking off a pass and understanding the importance of playing solid fundamental football.
"We've stressed to the kids and will continue to stress to them how important it is to play without too many mistakes," said Hill, who has guided the Buffs to a 17-12 in his three previous seasons, including two postseason playoff appearances. "We're further along than we've been in the three previous years, and that's mainly because we've got kids who have been in the system, have a better understanding of what we're doing."
Hill said he was pleased with the first day of practice, considering that without the traditional two-a-day workouts the team extended its evening schedule to three hours.
"A little fatigue at the end of the day, perhaps, which caused some interceptions, some mistakes," Hill said. "Overall, I think the team will pick things up well. We've tried to simplify a lot of things for them, but during practice we want to go faster than when we play a game."
Hill said that while the offensive and defensive lines might not be as big as those in previous seasons, he was excited about the athleticism and speed of his squad.
"We'll be a little more of an attacking type defense and use our speed," Hill said. "Our sophomore class had a good summer, and you'll see some of those kids stepping into important roles, especially on special teams."
Another big factor in moving at a faster pace is the two-plus weeks they have to prepare for the trip to Bixby, a two-day jaunt of 402 miles to play the Spartans for the second straight year in Week 1. Bixby was the opening game foe in 2012 when Buffalo Stadium opened and the visiting Spartans used six big plays to score 42 points in a 42-7 romp over the Buffs. Hill is hoping for a different outcome this time around.
"It's certainly a long trip. We've talked about things like that and will continue to work with the team about how to prepare for that long of a trip," Hill said. "We've got a lot of kids who played in the game last year who are back, so we'll just do everything we can to be ready. I don't think the 42 points really reflects how we played the rest of the game. Those touchdowns they scored, we had people out of position and I think this year we've got the speed to perhaps run some people down if we need to."
One of the big keys will be the advancement of senior quarterback Greyson Tempel, who will be the first two-year starter behind center for Hill in his four seasons. He had Cody Bernbeck and Jake Curran for one campaign each before Tempel assumed controls a year ago as a junior.
"Just having the understanding of what we do, and seeing the game slow down for him," Hill said when asked about improvements he sees in Tempel. "There's a comfort level of his understanding of what happens when the lights come on. We've not had that situation in the last three years, so I think we have the opportunity to do much better in the first week this time around. It's a process for the quarterback to learn, 'how do I get the ball out of my hands into the hands of the other playmakers?'"
The 5-4 mark of 2012 was somewhat of a roller-coaster season for the Buffs, where turnovers and penalties proved costly in close losses to Hays and Dodge City. Their other two losses were blowouts, the first to Bixby and the second to district foe Hutchinson, which finished as the Class 6A state runner-up. The Salthawks will likely be the favorite to win the district as well as compete for its eighth state championship. The Buffs will have a district road game at Maize before hosting Hutch and rival Dodge City in the final two weeks of district play.
2013 GCHS Schedule
Sept. 6--at Bixby, Okla.; Sept. 13--WOODWARD, OKLA.; Sept. 20--GREAT BEND; Sept. 27--at Hays; Oct. 4--at Liberal; Oct. 11--WICHITA EAST; Oct. 18--at Maize; Oct. 25--HUTCHINSON; Nov. 1--DODGE CITY.