By BRETT MARSHALL
One of the big question marks that faced the 2012 Garden City Buffaloes football team was who would be the starting quarterback.
That was answered just before the season-opening game at the new Buffalo Stadium when coach Brian Hill tabbed junior Greyson Tempel to be his new signal caller, replacing the graduated Jake Curran.
Other questions abounded as well. Who would be the top receivers? Who would start on both sides of the line?
Untested and unproven, many of the answers were realized during the Buffs' 5-4 season. Many of those answers were never realized, too.
It was, in essence, a roller-coaster ride for Hill, finishing his third season at the helm of the Buffs' gridiron program.
"I definitely think the season had some positive moments," Hill said in an interview to discuss the state of the Buffs' football program. "The number of players who stepped into roles, especially with the injuries we had, that showed we had some depth. The way the kids reacted, they came to practice every day, every week and worked as hard as they could. We were building with young kids and we just could be who we had to be."
The Buffs, indeed, had to battle the old injury bug.
At times, Hill would rarely know who was going to be available to play on the offensive and defensive line until game day. He estimates that nine or 10 players saw starting duties on the offensive side of the ball while about 12 to 14 played on the defensive side.
"A lot of young kids gained experience, but we certainly didn't have a lot of continuity up front," Hill said. "I think that's why you saw inconsistency in our performance. I'm not trying to blame anybody, but it's difficult to have consistency when you're continually putting in new players."
That lack of consistency saw the Buffs get blown out in the season opener against Bixby, Okla., 42-7, when six plays for the Sooner state school produced six touchdowns and 253 yards. An ugly 17-7 win at Woodward, Okla. followed, but running back Zach Finch, a promising sophomore, and defensive back Emilio Parr were both injured in that game and never fully recovered.
The Buffs followed that with perhaps their most complete game of the season --¬ a 45-28 demolition of Great Bend — when Tempel rushed for 276 yards and four touchdowns and passed for an additional two TDs. It was the second-best rushing performance in GCHS history.
Then came perhaps one of the toughest losses of the year, a 29-21 loss to Hays, when the Indians intercepted Tempel with just 1:10 left in the game and the score tied at 21. Hays would score the winning TD with 31 seconds to go, and the Buffs didn't have enough time on the clock to march down the field for a potential tying score.
A rebound 37-14 win at home over Liberal was then followed by a strong effort on the road in a 34-13 victory at Wichita East. A hard-fought 31-26 victory over Maize in the Class 6A district opener left the Buffs at 5-2.
But with the new district in place and adding perennial power Hutchinson into the mix, the Buffs faced the daunting task of heading east to play the Salthawks in their backyard. It wasn't pretty.
A 56-14 shellacking by the seven-time state championship program left the Buffs wounded and injured. Preparing for the regualr-season finale with rival Dodge City, playing for the coveted Hatchet and the runner-up district spot for postseason play, kept the Buffs motivated.
But the Buffs came unglued in the most important game of the season. Six turnovers, including one of the strangest players Hill has ever seen, doomed the Buffs to a 24-20 loss to the Red Demons. And because of the marginal point tiebreaker system, the Red Demons earned the runner-up spot, keeping the Buffs home from the postseason for the first time in Hill's three years. It's a taste in his mouth Hill would like to avoid.
"It's a tough pill to swallow when they (Dodge) scored 14 points off of seven yards of offense," Hill said. "We just didn't do the things necessary to win that game. I can't remember a game where we did so many things wrong to lose, and yet had chances to win the game."
It will be difficult to forget the botched center snap by three-year veteran senior Mitch Moore in the third quarter. By all accounts, Moore's snap back to Tempel in the shotgun formation hit his rear and went up in the air and about 5 yards to the right. Dodge's Immanuel Galloway plucked the ball in mid-air and raced 78 yards untouched for what would prove to be the winning points.
In fact, in the finale with Dodge, Moore was thrust into playing on the defensive line, something he had not done in his three-year varsity career.
"He stepped up big for us, did what we asked of him," Hill said. "That's all you can ask of a young man and I couldn't be more proud of a player."
A look at some of the stats explains just how much of an up-and-down season it was for the Buffs.
In their five wins, they had a plus-1 in the turnover department; in their four losses they were a minus-10. Penalties proved to be an issue, too, with the Buffs being flagged 68 times compared to 44 for their opponents. They fumbled the ball 28 times, losing 19 of them. And while Tempel accounted for 23 touchdowns with his legs and arm, he also was guilty of 18 turnovers (nine lost fumbles and nine interceptions). All part of the painful growing process. Still, he had one of the most productive seasons in school history with his 2,477 total yards.
When discussing his junior quarterback's season, Hill, himself a former high school and college quarterback, said Tempel grew as the season progressed. Simply, the good far outweighed the not-so-good.
"First, he was able to gain varsity experience and then he started to grow up from game to game," Hill said of Tempel, who finished the season with 13 TD passes and 10 rushing TDs. He accounted for 1,531 passing yards and 946 yards rushing. "He got better and had a better understanding of what a quarterback needs to do. We had to learn how to make him more productive once people knew how he could impact the game."
While the Buffs do lose tight end Taylor Foley and wideout Bo Banner, they return Dusty Tempel and Hunter Delgado to the receiving slots. Finch, Akil Love and Jared Koster all saw action at running back and they also return. Unlike this past season, next year the Buffs will be looking at re-loading on the line.
"We seem to have one year where we're replacing the skill positions and the next we're replacing the line positions," Hill said. "We got a lot of kids some experience, so it will be interesting to see where we are when we lineup next year."
Three years into his rebuilding program, Hill sees much progress from the ground floor up for the Buffs. His junior varsity went 5-2 and the freshmen were 6-2. Both middle schools produced strong seasons.
"I'm very pleased with where things are," Hill said. "It's taken some time, but I think we're changing the culture, changing the attitude. The coaches we have in place are doing a great job. The middle school teams are running the playbook that we want, but it has taken more time.
"Anytime you're trying to build a program, I think it takes at least four years, and it's been that way here. We're working with the third through 12th grade now and it's a high priority for us. A lot of factors are involved, and change never happens as quickly as you'd like."
When he looks back on the just completed season, Hill said he saw a group that accomplished perhaps more than most people might have expected.
"I think we got every ounce of potential out of these kids," Hill said. "I said all along, that the further you go into building the program, the steps to move up are steeper. We're attempting to push this forward. That's what the future holds and I think there's a lot of positives that we have in place."