By BRETT MARSHALL
Earlier this season, the Garden City Buffaloes football team was saddled with a 42-7 home-opening loss to Bixby, Okla. Three weeks later, the Buffs would lose a 29-21 heartbreaker to Hays High, again at home.
In weeks 3 and 5, the Hutchinson Salthawks lost to Missouri powerhouse Rockhurst, 35-31, after leading 31-17 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game. And two weeks later they were drubbed 35-10 by Salina South. Both games were at home.
And while the teams are similar in season record (both are 5-2 overall and won their 6A district openers a week ago), the two programs couldn't be more different.
Garden's Brian Hill, now heading into the final leg of his third season at the head of the Buffs, has brought the program back to respectability by making the playoffs in each of his first two years. And they are positioned to make another run to the postseason this time around.
Hutchinson, meanwhile, is the big dog program of Kansas football. That's what happens when you've won seven state championships (2004-07 in Class 6A, 2008-09, '11 in Class 5A) over the past decade.
With the Salthawks returning to Class 6A after a four-year absence, they're now front and center for the Buffaloes. The teams will collide at 7 p.m. Friday at Gowans Stadium in Hutchinson, with the winner certain to make the playoffs and in the driver's seat to claim the district title, thus earning a home field in the first round of the state playoffs in early November.
"It is a big game and it's really nice to play a meaningful game in the second week of the districts," Hill said on Wednesday. "It means you won the first game of districts and you have a chance to run the table. We did that last year, and we know how important it is to play at home in that first-round game."
The Salthawks have been the juggernaut program for more than a decade under coach Randy Dreiling, whose wit may be exceeded only by his caginess as a coach.
After losing the games to Rockhurst and then to Salina South, with as many as eight to 11 starters out due to injuries, many in prep football circles were writing the Salthawks' obituary for the 2012 season.
"Like Mark Twain was once quoted, 'the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated'" Dreiling said in a Wednesday phone interview. "It's strange how fast they want to bury you. But, I can understand it. Our expectations are high, and I certainly wasn't getting any sympathy cards from any coaches or any fans from other schools."
Following the loss to South, a game where the Salthawks failed to score three times when inside the Cougars' 10-yard line, Dreiling had his staff go back to work on putting the pieces of this team back together.
"We didn't have a goal line package that you'd want to open up at Christmas," Dreiling said. "Now, we've got something that we don't mind unwrapping."
The result has been a dramatic 31-28 victory over Derby, the team that had supplanted the Salthawks as the state's No. 1-ranked team. Hutch followed that up with a 49-17 romp over Dodge City a week ago to open district play on the road.
For Hill, the game represents another opportunity to take the pulse of where his team is nearly three seasons into being the head coach.
"It's not just the final score that you look at in a game like this," said Hill, who has seen his teams steadily improve in each of the first two seasons and followed suit once again this season. "It's how you play, how you compete, every play. You evaluate the effort, the intensity and the execution. That's what Hutchinson does, that's why they win. Every single play they give you their best. We've got to match that, that's what I've told the kids."
Dreiling sees some of the same characteristic in the Buffs that Hill sees in the Salthawks.
"The thing that impresses me about Garden is how hard those kids are playing," Dreiling said. "They believe in their schemes, they believe in what their coaches are doing. They're running to the play and gang tackling. You can tell how hungry their kids are. Coach Hill is doing a great job. They're tough kids, and their secondary does a good job of tackling. They stay in the same defense, and if you kow what you're doing, you're gonna play faster when you know your job. The results are showing for them."
Anyone and everyone knows about Hutchinson's famed 'flexbone' offfense, the vaunted triple-option that has been the engine that drives the Salthawks' success vehicle.
"Teams have thrown everything at us imaginable," Dreiling said. "We see different, weird things all the time to try to stop us. We just keep looking to see where their schemes are and we try to prepare and make sure we can block any scheme. If we can do that, it really doesn't matter what they run."
It seems to be working once again as the Salthawks are averaging 49 points per game, rushing for 395 yards while passing for just 75. They give up 22.6 points, 135 rushing yards and 161 passing yards.
"We don't worry to much about the team's passing, just as long as they don't get anything long, or cheap," Dreiling said. "Our goal is to stop the run and make a team one dimensional."
Quarterbacks play a key role for both teams — senior Trevor Turner for the Salthawks and junior Greyson Tempel for the Buffs.
Turner keys the triple option and has rushed for 426 yards and scored four touchdowns. Senior fullback Will Smith is the team's leading rusher with 711 yards and six TDs.
"Most teams, if you miss a tackle here or there, you'll give up 10 yards," Hill said of the challenge facing the Buffs defense. "With Hutch, if you do that, you're costing yourself seven points. You've got to make tackles, you've got to make tackles in open space. They like to play smash-mouth football and we've got to be ready for that."
Greyson Tempel, meanwhile, has complted 101-of-176 passes for 1,241 yards and 10 touchdowns, suffering four interceptions. He has rushed for 807 yards and another 10 TDs. His twin brother, Dustin, has been his favorite target, catching 34 passes for 504 yards and four scores.
Through seven games, the Buffs have 1,291 rushing yards and 1,249 passing yards. Just the kind of balance that Hill has dialed up for the team to keep other team's guessing.
"It's when you do the things that the other team doesn't think you will do, that's when you're successful," Hill said.
It's not necessarily one of those David and Goliath games, but certainly one could make a case that a win for Garden would be something akin to the great biblical story.
Dreiling recalls his first years of facing Garden City, when Dave Meadows was coaching the Buffs. In his 11 seasons at GCHS, Meadows-coached teams never lost to Hutchinson. Dreiling first coached against Meadows in the 1996 season, and then proceeded to lose the next three as well. Since then, Dreiling and the Salthawks have dominated in the same way, going 9-0 with the last meeting resulting in a 56-13 rout of the Buffs in 2007.
"It's great to have a new schedule, with some new faces to see," Dreiling said of the return to 6A. "Some people may feel we've lost a little swagger that we had, but we're still Hutch High. I still like our chances on Friday nights and that's why we continue to go out and play the way we have for years. I never was too smart, but I'm not any dumber today. We don't have a lot of schools calling to put us on their schedule."
In the case of Friday night's game, Garden City and Hill didn't have a choice. The re-classification for two years was announced a year ago and Hill has known the Salthawks would be on the schedule since.
"It's a great opportunity to go and play a team with a great tradition," Hill said. "You can't be afraid to go and take on a team like Hutch. That's the fun, that's the challenge. That's where we want to be as well. And we're getting there."
Know the Foe
Who: Garden City at Hutchinson
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: Gowans Stadium
Last Meeting: 2007, Hutchinson W 56-13.
Series Since 1988: Garden City 11-9; Hutchinson has won last 9.
Class: 6A, District 8
League: Western Athletic Conference
Mascot: Buffaloes (Brown/White)
Coach: Brian Hill, (3rd year, 17-10, .630)
Probable Starting lineup
T--Alex Ortiz, 6-3, 285, So.; Andres Rivas, 6-3, 205, Sr.
G--Ian Jones, 5-10, 205, Sr.; Ben Blood, 6-5, 275, Sr.
C--Mitch Moore, 6-1, 245, Sr.
TE--Taylor Foley, 6-2, 220, Sr.
WR--Dustin Tempel, 5-10, 165, Jr.; Hunter Delgado, 6-1, 165, Jr.;
FB--Brady Bean, 5-11, 200, Sr.
TB--Logan Dechant, 5-9, 170, Sr.
QB--Greyson Tempel, 5-10, 175, Jr.
PK--Rudy Chavez, 5-8, 150, Sr.
E--Andres Rivas, 6-3, 205, Sr.; Taylor Foley, 6-2, 220, Sr.
T--James Nguyen, 6-0, 205, Jr.; Quinton Mead, 5-10, 210, Jr.
LB--Todd Savolt, 5-8, 180, Sr.; Brady Bean, 5-11, 200, Sr.
S--Hunter Delgado, 6-1, 165, Jr.; Dozie Ekweariri, 5-8, 145 Jr.
CB--Denton Keller, 5-10, 170, Sr.; Dustin Tempel, 5-10, 165, Jr.
P--Mitchell Hernandez, 5-9, 170, Jr.
2012 Results (5-2, 2-1 WAC, 1-0 District 8)
Aug. 31--BIXBY, OKLA., L 42-7
Sept. 7--at Woodward, Okla., W 17-7
Sept. 14--at Great Bend#, W 45-28
Sept. 21--HAYS#, L 29-21
Sept. 28--LIBERAL#, W 37-14
Oct. 5--at Wichita East, W 34-13
Oct. 12--MAIZE*, W 31-26
Oct. 19--at Hutchinson*
Oct. 26--at Dodge City*#
*--Denotes Class 6A District-8 game
#--Denotes Western Athletic Conference game
Class: 6A, District 8
League: Ark Valley Chisholm Trail I
Mascot: Salthawks (Blue/Gold)
Coach: Randy Dreiling, (16th year, 150-33, .820)
Probable Starting Lineup
WR--Evan Gaines-Grissom, 5-11, 152, Sr.
T--Dominque Hoover, 5-11, 171, Sr.; Trae Boese, 6-0, 225, Sr.
G--Chris Starks, 5-6, 208, Sr.; Derrick Wright, 5-10, 245, Sr.
C--Cole Cruz, 5-11, 276, Jr.
QB--Trevor Turner, 5-10, 160, Sr.
HB--Dakota Brower, 5-10, 153, Sr.; Jamison Likes, 6-1, 185, Sr.
FB--Tyvon Brown, 5-8, 171, So.
PK--Kassidy Lemons, 5-11, 157, Jr.
E--Jarod Gagnebin, 6-0, 220, Sr.; Chase Marr, 6-0, 158, Sr.
T--Nathan Fairbanks, 6-2, 235, Jr.
NG--Dalton Luce, 5-8, 217, Jr.
LB--Tyler Cox, 5-7, 143, Sr.; Colby Turner, 5-11, 190, So.; Ryan Stoecklein, 6-0, 170, So.
CB--Jarrod Dawson, 5-8, 158, Sr.; Shaquille Henderson, 6-0, 143, Sr.
S--Turner Wintz, 5-9, 155, So.; Tanner Higgins, 5-6, 135, Sr.
P--Turner Wintz, 5-9, 155, So.
2012 Results (5-2, 3-2 AVL/CTL, 1-0 District 8)
Aug. 31--at Salina Central, W 48-14
Sept. 7--Haysville-Campus, W 56-0
Sept. 14--Rockhurst, Mo., L 35-31
Sept. 21--at Newton, W 48-29
Sept. 28--Salina South, L 35-10
Oct. 5--Derby, W 31-28
Oct. 12--at Dodge City*, W 49-17
Oct. 19--Garden City*
Oct. 26--at Maize*
*--Denotes Class 6A District 8 game