By BRETT MARSHALL
When Ulysses' Tigers finally won the storm-delayed Friday night football season opener, 42-20, against Class 5A Liberal, there was one item abundantly clear to those who follow sports in western Kansas.
The GWAC, officially the Great West Activities Conference, had just completed a great night on the gridiron.
All one needs to do is look at the results of opening night.
Scott City 30, Garden City 3; Ulysses 42, Liberal 20; Holcomb 50, Chaparral 28; Colby 26, St. Francis 2.
And the only blot on the night? Goodland's 40-22 win over GWAC foe Hugoton to give the conference a 5-1 record.
And nobody is surprised, least of all the coaches who were on the sidelines Friday night.
"We've known all along the league would be good," said Ulysses football coach and athletic director Jason Kenny. "Scott City's the real deal, Holcomb is good and they're not too far from moving further up. Hugoton is also improved."
Holcomb's Jerry Johnson echoed Kenny's sentiments following the opening night success of the GWAC.
"I think we knew that it would be among the toughest 3A-4A leagues in the state and it's certainly proved to be just that," Johnson said. "Scott City and Ulysses are ranked in the top five in 3A and 4A, so you know you're going to get a tough game every week."
Johnson said even the bottom rung of teams in the league have proven to be competitive in the league's short history.
"Goodland and Colby are very competitive, so you know you've got to come to play every week," Johnson said. "The kids have to learn how to play tough and physical, and how to make big plays. The last two years we've been down a little, partly because of injuries and partly some kids not coming out. Now, our underclassmen who have been playing have stepped it up. If you don't do that, you'll get run over. They've come into the weight room in the off-season and now they're taking their turn."
Scott City's O'Neil, who guided the Beavers to the Class 3A boys basketball crown last March, reinforced his colleagues' opinions of the GWAC.
"All of the schools in the league have had success in sports and other activities, like music, speech, forensics," O'Neil said. "Every school has something to hang their hat on for success."
Holcomb's girls won the 3-2-1A state golf title, Colby's girls the 4A state track title to add to the league's haul a year ago in its rookie year of existence.
"We're fortunate to have some outstanding coaches, but we've got kids who are interested in participating and the towns all provide great support to our programs," Kenny said. "It's a package deal for the league. I think when we all sat down to talk about the league we just wanted to know how we could make things better."
O'Neil said when you look at some of the players, especially on the football field this year, that a person shouldn't be surprised at what is happening.
"There's a ton of speed out there for many teams," O'Neil said. "Holcomb's got two kids on their relay team that beat ours at state. We've got three from our state champion relay team and Ulysses has speed at their skill positions. It certainly makes for a challenge every week."
And, of course, things don't get any easier in the second week of the schedule. Ulysses hosts Goodland, Hugoton hosts Colby and Holcomb travels to Scott City in an all-league matchup of schools.
"Lucky us," Holcomb's Johnson said. "We're playing a different style of football than we've played in the past, and that's because we're smaller, quicker, faster. Someone asked my wife in the stands why we were throwing the ball so much. Well, we are not the type of team that is going to grind it out. We're going to have to spread the field, get our speed people out in space and take advantage of those situations."
For the opening week of high school football, the Great West Activities Conference was just that — Great.