By BRETT MARSHALL
It was billed as the Western Athletic Conference Invitational.
But Thursday's season-opening bowling tournament at Hard Rock Lanes was much more than just the four WAC teams gathering for a full afternoon of competition on the lanes.
It was just as much about bragging rights; although, Thursday's final results have no impact on the 2014 league race, which will get under way next week.
Nope. All Thursday did was to showcase two of the top teams in Kansas — defending Class 5A and WAC champion Great Bend's boys and the Garden City boys, who placed third in Class 6A at the 2013 state tournament.
In Thursday's unique format, Great Bend came out on top of the Buffs at the end of the day, winning the final Baker format best 3-of-5 series by coming from behind in the final two games to claim first place with a 3-2 victory over the Buffs.
"I liked everything about the day but the final outcome," said GCHS coach Kip Nichols.
The fact that Great Bend's girls also toppled the Lady Buffs in the Baker format finals left a bittersweet taste in Nichols' mouth.
"Well, it feels like kissin' my sister, which isn't a good thing," Nichols said. "Other than the fact we lost in Baker, I thought both the boys and girls bowled exceedingly well for our first time out."
In truth, had the Buffs been in a regular WAC format of securing points in a 3-game series, and then the Baker format awarding one point for each game won, plus two bonus points for a win, Garden City would have beaten the Panthers in both divisions. The boys would have won 8-3 and the girls 9-2.
"I know the kids are disappointed about not winning today, and that's always good to know there's some disappointment," Nichols said. "But, in truth, I want to be able to explain to them that in a normal league format, we would have won."
That was never more evident than in the three-game qualifying series that started the day's competition.
The boys, with three returners off last year's state placing team, were dominant as they rolled games of 843-831-881 for a 2,555 series. In that format, all six players bowl and the best four scores are used in the total for each game.
Junior Jarett Landgraf, returning to the team after a year's absence to compete in wrestling, was the top performer for the Buffs, rolling a 673 series on games of 220-244-209 to take individual honors for the day.
"It felt pretty good to be back out there," Landgraf said afterward. "We all found our marks and were consistently picking up spares. The lanes were nice, and you could get a good house shot. The atmosphere was fun, a lot of people came out to watch. It's nice to be back. This group feels like family and I've missed them."
Landgraf said it was encouraging to see the entire team have their moments of contributing.
"Everybody bowled well," Landgraf said. "We just need to stay upbeat and pick each other up like we did today. We're looking forward to see how good we can be."
Senior Theron Kells was solid throughout, rolling games of 228-190-234 for a 652 series. And Tristan Funk went over the 600 mark as well with games of 204-191-228 for a 623 series.
Rounding out the boys' series were freshman Karl Larson Jr., (191-195-206--592), Mickey Bridges (180-201-170--551) and Ryan Strecker (173-161-210). The team's 881 final game fell just short of that coveted 900 total.
"That's something we have our eyes on," Landgraf said.
For the girls, junior Alexa Hemmert provided the top score of the day, rolling a 599 series on games of 204-195-200 and placed third individually behind Great Bend's Miranda Hejny (628) and Liberal's Katie Jennings (601).
"It was a good day, but I'm a little upset that we didn't win the Baker," Hemmert said. "I think we all felt really good and being at home felt natural. You could find a line and move when you needed to."
Hemmert said that with two of the girls competing in their first varsity tournament, she was happy with the way the day went.
"We showed that we can put together good games, and pick each other up," Hemmert said. "I remember my first tournament, too, and I was nervous. So I thought they all did a great job. There were a lot of good things to take from today. In the Baker format, we just have to remember to make the spares as every pin counts."
In the championship match on the girls' side, Great Bend won the final two games by scores of 172-146 and 185-149 after taking game one 204-159 and Garden claiming the second game, 195-157.
It was much the same on the boys' side as the Panthers fell behind 2-1, winning the first game 193-162 before the Buffs responded to win the next two (221-147 and 207-172). But the Panthers showed some grit when they fired games of 227 and 258 to close out the Buffs, who had games of 185 and 204.
In the Baker format, five bowlers roll two frames each and not in consecutive order. It's fast, furious and momentum swings like a pendulum clock.
The Buffs don't have much rest before they return to action as they travel to Wichita for Saturday's Bishop Carroll Invitational at West Acres Bowl. Competition is slated to begin at 10 a.m.
Results in Scoreboard, Page B2.