By BRETT MARSHALL
Don't pay attention to the records. Throw out the statistics. Ignore comparison scores.
The Hatchet Game has no rules, no regulations, no guidelines.
Crazy? Yes. Unpredictable? Absolutely. Upsets? Bet on it. Blowouts? Rarely. Hotly-contested with dramatic finishes? Uh-huh.
At 7 p.m. Friday at Buffalo Stadium, one of the storied rivalries in the Sunflower State will kickoff for the 115th time between the Garden City Buffaloes and Dodge City Red Demons. Garden City is coming off its most impressive win in more than a decade, a 35-24 comeback win against Hutchinson a week ago, while the Demons are coming off a tough 17-14 loss to Maize.
And if the 2012 version of what was voted by USA Today a year ago as the best high school football rivalry in Kansas is any indicator, Friday night will be full of fireworks, drama and the unknown.
And nobody knows that better than the two head coaches of the Hatchet teams — Garden City's Brian Hill and Dodge's Dave Foster. They've matched wits and strategies three times now, with Foster holding a 2-1 edge, including the 24-20 Red Demon win a year ago in Dodge City that left both coaches befuddled and fans scratching their heads.
"We just need to do the things that we control and everything else is in the hands of someone else," said Hill in regards to the additional playoff considerations. "We just have to take care of business. The Hatchet game is so much bigger than just the football program. We'll have students who don't know much about football who know that the Hatchet means something."
It was that 2012 game that produced an ESPN Top 10 play of the week when Dodge's Immanuel Galloway, who Foster said was blitzing on the play from his left side strong safety position, plucked out of the air an errant snap from Garden center Mitch Moore. The ball somehow hit his backside when he snapped the ball and it flew up in the air and about seven yards to the right, just where Galloway was coming on his blitz.
"I've played in rivalry games, and coached in other big games, but there's nothing like this," Foster said of trying to protect the coveted Hatchet. "When we lost in 2011, but made the playoffs, everybody kept talking about the Hatchet, but nobody was talking about us making the playoffs. Our kids certainly understand it's a big game, and I expect that we'll be ready to play. We've remained positive despite the losses and if you walked into a room with them today, you'd never know they are 3-5."
In that third quarter play that doomed the Buffs, almost everybody was going forward, and Galloway only had to elude the diving tackle attempt by GCHS quarterback Greyson Tempel, and then raced untouched 82 yards for what eventually was enough points for the Demons to produce a four-point win. That margin left the teams tied in the district in both record and margin points (-12). But since Dodge won the game, that was the tiebreaker that sent them to the 6A playoffs, while Garden City was sent home pondering the four-turnover night that cost them the game.
"That was one of those things where you're not really in control of things and was so unusual," Hill said of the snap from center Mitch Moore that Galloway picked off. "We're the only teams out this way that are this size (6A), in the same conference (WAC), and when we play each other, it's a really big deal. People know each other. Kids have grown up playing each other. They see each other in the summer and in so many other sports, too."
And if there's any doubt that records really are meaningless in this historic rivalry, consider that when the teams met a year ago, they were exactly in the same position record-wise, but in different places with marginal points.
Garden City was then, and is now, 5-3 overall, 1-1 in the district and 2-1 in the Western Athletic Conference. Dodge City was then, and is now, 3-5 overall, 0-2 in the district and 1-2 in the WAC. A Garden win would not automatically send them to the playoffs as they trail Hutchinson in marginal points (Hutch is at +10 while Garden is at -5). Maize is 2-0 and has +19 marginal points, and Dodge has minus-24 marginal points. The maximum a team can win or lose is 21 points based upon a game's final score.
"The points and everything is for somebody else to think about," Hill said on Wednesday. "We've just got to get ready for a Dodge team that will come and play hard, and their defense, for the most part, has played very well in most every game."
There's good reason for the Buffs to give the Demons every bit of respect and consideration as they prepare for Friday's battle.
The Demons have beaten Great Bend (47-13), a team that edged Garden (28-25); they played Hays to within a touchdown (35-28); and they barely lost to Maize (17-14), a team that lit up the Buffs for a 40-24 victory two weeks ago.
"What ifs don't get you any games back but seriously, if six plays go the other way we are probably 6-2 and not 3-5," Foster said. "I firmly believe that we've played poorly at key positions at key times and that's why we've lost the games. We have good enough kids to be winning."
In the three-point loss to Maize, the Demons were inside the red zone (20-yard line) four times and came away with just seven points.
"It's probably the most frustrating season for the outcomes we've had that I can remember," Foster said. "I feel as a coach you can look at certain losses and figure it out, but in our case there's just a few that I don't get and don't understand."
Dodge's offense is built around senior quarterback Kelan Newton, junior running back Blaik Middleton, wide receiver Jace Larson, and a battle-tested veteran line.
Newton has thrown for 1,109 yards and nine touchdowns, while completing 50 percent of his passes (102-of-204). He has thrown six interceptions. Middleton, coming off a monster game in which he carried a school-record 41 times for 271 yards, has 783 rushing yards this year.
"I was impressed with how they ran the ball and how hard they play," Hill said of the Demons. "You know you'll get their best shot."
Garden, of course, counters with dual-threat quarterback Greyson Tempel, who has amassed 1,585 yards passing (95-of-181) and 17 touchdowns, while rushing for an additional 1,036 yards, scoring 16 TDs.
"He runs it well, he passes it well," Foster said of the Buffs' senior QB. "He's our focal point. He reminds me some of Jared Helfrich (Dodge City QB, 2010). He's got tremendous speed. I know the couple of games where teams have been able to slow him down, but I wish it were that easy."
In the storied history of the two schools, Dodge City has averaged 16.8 points while the Buffs are close at 13.1, which is also the point differential average of the past three games.
Bottom line, both teams want The Hatchet. Dodge won't give it away easily. Garden City will have to work hard to get it back.
Know the Foe
What: Dodge City at Garden City
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: Buffalo Stadium
Last Meeting: 2012, Dodge City 24-20 at Dodge City.
Last Game in Garden City: 2011, Garden City 18-15 (2 OT).
Mascot: Buffaloes (Brown & White)
Class: Kansas 6A, District 8 (Maize, Hutchinson, Dodge City)
League: Western Athletic Conference
Head Coach: Brian Hill (4th year, 22-15, .595)
Projected Starting Lineup
WR—Dusty Tempel, 5-10, 170, Sr.; Mitchell Hernandez, 5-8, 160, Sr.; Alex Espinosa, 6-0, 160, Jr.
T—Alex Frey, 6-4, 290, So.; Alex Ortiz, 6-3, 285, Jr.
G—Montana Fuller, 6-3, 250, Sr.; Cesar Felix, 5-8, 240, Sr.
C—Humberto Perez, 6-0, 230, Jr.
QB—Greyson Tempel, 5-11, 175, Sr.
TB—Jared Koster, 5-11, 155, So.
FB—Clay Woydziak, 5-10, 175, Sr.
PK—Ismael Hernandez, 5-7, 140, Sr.
T—James Nguyen, 6-2, 210, Sr.; Quinton Mead, 5-11, 220, Sr.
E—Cody Worden, 5-11, 180, Sr.; Andrew Brom, 5-8, 170, Sr.
LB—Trenton Chiddix, 5-8, 170, Jr.; Kelton Uthe, 5-10, 215, Sr.; Nalen Rincones, 5-10, 180, So.
CB—Alex Espinosa, 6-0, 160, Jr.; Dusty Tempel, 5-10, 170, Sr.
S—Emilio Parr, 6-2, 175, Sr.; Dozie Ekweariri, 5-9, 140, Sr.
P—Mitchell Hernandez, 5-8, 160, Sr.
(5-3, 1-1 Dist., 2-1 WAC)
Sept. 6—at Bixby, Okla., L 32-27
Sept. 13—WOODWARD, OKLA., W 35-34
Sept. 20—GREAT BEND*, L 28-25
Sept. 27—at Hays*, W 35-0 (game called at halftime, lightning)
Oct. 4—at Liberal*, W 61-20
Oct. 11— WICHITA EAST, W 35-7
Oct. 18—at Maize#, L 40-24
Oct. 25—HUTCHINSON#, W 35-24
Nov. 1—DODGE CITY*#
*—Indicates WAC game; #-Indicates Class 6A-8 district game.
Mascot: Red Demons (Scarlet & Royal)
Class: Kansas 6A, District 8 (Garden City, Maize, Hutchinson)
League: Western Athletic Conference
Head Coach: Dave Foster (4th year, 24-17, .585)
Projected Starting Lineup
WR—Jace Larson, 6-3, 200, Sr.; Bryce Unruh, 6-2, 170, So.; Immanuel Galloway, 6-0, 185, Sr.
T—Jacob Harshberger, 6-3, 230, Sr.; Kale Riekenberger, 6-1, 220, Sr.
G—Caleb Beville, 6-5, 265, Sr.; Damian Loya, 6-0, 215, Sr.
C—Kolby Sonday, 6-0, 250, Jr.
TE—Noah Williams, 6-4, 190, So.
QB—Kelan Newton, 6-5, 205, Sr.
RB—Blaik Middleton, 5-10, 175, Jr.
PK/P—Dillon Burkhard, 5-10, 160, Sr.
E—Kale Riekenberg, 6-1, 220, Sr.; Ryan Lomas, 5-10, 195, Sr.
T—Jacob Harshberger, 6-3, 230, Sr.; Damian Loya, 6-0, 215, Sr.
LB—Gideon Wells, 5-6, 195, So.; Jhett Ostrom, 6-0, 190, Jr.
CB—Steven Bartel, 6-0, 160, Sr.; Dominic Randall, 5-11, 195, Sr.
S—Immanuel Galloway, 6-0, 185, Sr.; Austin Savage, 5-10, 170, Sr.; Luis Marino, 6-0, 175, So.
(3-5, 0-2 Dist., 1-2 WAC)
Sept. 6—at Wichita Southeast, W 44-6
Sept. 13—WICHITA NORTHWEST, W 33-7
Sept. 20—at Wichita Heights, L 32-3
Sept. 27—LIBERAL, L 40-27
Oct. 4—at Great Bend, W 47-13
Oct. 11—HAYS, L 35-28
Oct. 18—at Hutchinson, L 35-0
Oct. 25—MAIZE, L 17-14
Nov. 1—at Garden City