By BRETT MARSHALL
All the preliminaries are over. Appetizers have been served. The main course has been consumed.
Now, it's dessert.
That's what it likely will feel like for the Garden City Buffaloes football team when they step onto the Wichita Northwest Stadium field at 7 p.m. Friday to meet the Grizzlies in a Class 6A Regional playoff game.
The winner moves on. The loser checks in equipment the first of next week. It's as simple as that.
"We've played our way into the playoffs and that's always a bonus and a reward for the players and staff," said GCHS head coach Brian Hill, who has now guided the Buffs to three playoff appearances in four seasons. "You get on a roll, you want to make a run to the state championship. It's just nice to be back (after missing in 2012) because we've got a great group of kids who have worked their tails off.
"The best thing about this is that you know you're in complete control of your destiny. It doesn't matter if you win by one or win by a bunch, you get to play the next week."
It hasn't been that way for nearly a month for the Buffs, as they have had their own version of "sudden" death or victory, depending on how one looks at it.
The Buffs had to scratch, claw and battle their way into the postseason.
They lost at Maize (40-24) to open district play before returning home to Buffalo Stadium, where they answered the challenge once again, beating perennial state title contender Hutchinson 35-24 (only the third district loss for the Salthawks since 2000), and then rolled past arch-rival Dodge City (41-20) to not only claim the coveted Hatchet, but earn a share of the Western Athletic Conference title with Hays, and get the runner-up district spot by virtue of finishing with more plus points than Hutch in the 21-point marginal tiebreaker system used by the Kansas State High School Activities Association.
The Buffs finished with a plus-16 while Maize earned the district championship with a plus-17, and Hutch finished at plus-10 after all three teams went 2-1, each beating each other, and all three beating Dodge City.
"We've played a tough schedule and when you look who we've played and how we've played, especially the last five or six games, we understand what it will take to win a playoff game," Hill said.
The Buffs, in fact, have won five of their last six games, with the one stub of the toe at Maize, when they fell behind 19-0 in the first half.
"Going back to the first couple of games of the season, you see the growth of these kids, and it's a tribute to the coaching staff and the players," Hill said of his assistants and a big senior class. "A lot of them didn't have a lot of playing experience, and they've played well in the last month."
While the Buffs and Grizzlies are no strangers to each other on the football field, it has been four seasons since the two teams have collided. They have met 21 times since 1985, with Northwest owning a 12-9 edge. The teams played every year from 1985 to 1993 and then renewed it in 1996-97, before playing a stretch that went from 2002 to 2009.
The 2009 district battle saw Northwest roll to a 42-19 victory, and the Grizzlies have won the previous three meetings. Garden City's last win came in 2006, when they squeaked out a 21-20 win.
Twice, the teams have met in the 6A playoffs, and in each of those seasons it was a rematch of regular season games. Northwest won in 2004 (35-16, first round) and Garden City won in 2005 (21-12, second round).
Little of that history matters, however, and neither Hill nor Northwest's Steve Martin were around for any of those games. And, more importantly, neither were any of the current players on either team.
Friday night, it will be front and center for two teams who came out of their districts in distinctively different methods.
In what Martin described as likely "the weakest district in 6A," the Grizzlies rolled past Haysville-Campus, Wichita South and Wichita North, three teams with a combined three wins for the season. And they outscored those opponents 180-28 after being on the other side of the scoreboard by a 134-77 margin when the team was 2-4.
Martin offers no apology for his team's entry into the playoffs due to its weak district competition.
"It's where they put us. We can't fix our schedule," Martin said. "When we lost to Topeka High (42-13) in the first round, we knew we had a chance with a young group to get better as the season went along, and that's what has happened."
The Grizzlies only have nine seniors of the 22 position players.
"We've played a lot of young players, and they've gotten better each week," Martin said.
And while he's pleased with his team's progression through the nine-game schedule, he readily admits they haven't faced a quarterback like Garden's Greyson Tempel.
The Buffs' senior signal caller has accounted for 1,790 yards passing, a school season record, and 1,193 yards rushing as he leads an offense that has been hitting on most cylinders the past two weeks. Tempel has thrown 19 touchdown passes (eight to Caleb Tramp, six to Dusty Tempel and four to Mitchell Hernandez).
"He's a dynamic quarterback who can cause you fits," Martin said of Tempel. "He's one of the best players we've seen. He's got weapons everywhere it seems. Our common opponents (Dodge City and Wichita East), we saw things that didn't come up in our games."
While Garden has relied on its balanced offense and an opportunistic defense, the Grizzlies have taken advantage of their running game (258.9 yards/game). Their ground game is led by senior Division I recruit Deron Thompson (5-9, 180), who has rushed for 884 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. He has 10.6-second speed in the 100 meters. Quarterback Erin Gaither has rolled up 562 yards rushing and 880 passing yards. Northwest's other back, Christian Sanders, has accounted for 516 rushing yards.
"They've got an explosive tailback (Thompson) who can take it the distance," Hill said of the Grizzlies' run-oriented offense. "Their quarterback has improved through the season, and he's making better decisions. We've definitely got our hands full."
Martin has been impressed with Garden City's defense in reviewing game film on the Buffs.
"They're not very big, but they play physical," Martin said of Garden's defense. "They run well in space, and they go side-to-side really well, and they pack a big punch. I don't think we can afford to get into a scoring contest with them. For our sake, we need to have it low scoring. We just can't go out there and trade touchdowns."
That Buffs defense has spread the wealth around, with Nalen Rincones leading the way with 90 tackles, Cody Worden tops in sacks with nine and tackles for loss with 17 (tied with James Nguyen), while Emilio Parr and Dozie Ekweariri share the interception lead with three each. Rincones has three fumble recoveries.
Northwest's defense, too, has been a large part of the team's success, having yielded just 18 points per game.
"They're extremely fast and well disciplined," Hill said of the Northwest defensive group. "They know their assignments, and they do a good job of keeping the ball in front of them. Their linebackers are all very good. They fly around and do a great job of getting to the ball."
The winner will advance to the Nov. 14 Sectional against the winner of the Topeka High-Wichita Heights game.