By BRETT MARSHALL
The first two times that Garden City High School's football team faced the Wichita Heights Falcons under coach Brian Hill (2010 and 2011), it became apparent early that there were major mismatches between the two Class 6A schools.
In Hill's first season of 2010, the Buffs traveled to Heights for a first-round playoff game and were soundly spanked by the Falcons, 49-7. That was the first of the Falcons' four wins en route to the state championship where they pounded Olathe North, 48-14. The second time around, this one a second-round contest also played at Heights, saw the Buffs come home saddled with a 35-3 pounding. That year, the Falcons lost the championship game to Olathe South, 41-37.
Now, nearing the finish of his fourth season, Hill and the Buffs clearly have closed the gap.
On Friday, with a scheduled 7 p.m. kickoff at Buffalo Stadium, the GCHS head coach will get to see just how much that gap has closed, or even perhaps been overcome.
Not since the 2005 season, when the Buffs reached the semifinals against Hutchinson, have they hosted a second-round playoff game. In that one, the Buffs defeated Wichita Northwest 21-12.
"It's that time of year where you know you're gonna see really good teams," Hill said Wednesday following his team's mid-week practice. "They are the typical Heights team. They have a great running game and they spread the carries around. They've got threats to take it all the way. Their offensive line is very good and I think one thing that is underrated is how well their backs block for each other. They're very unselfish."
Both teams enter the sectional championship battle with identical 7-3 records and both went 2-1 in their respective districts (Heights runner-up to Derby and Garden second to Maize).
Each won their playoff opener last Friday, and each won it on the road. To top it off, each won in a battle high-scoring offenses — Heights outlasting Topeka High 55-48 while the Buffs scored in the game's final minute to nudge Wichita Northwest 40-36.
And while the head coaching cap at Heights is now being worn by first-year mentor Terry Harrison, what Hill and the Buffs will see from the Falcons will be quite similar to what they saw when Rick Wheeler was guiding the program. Prior to those two playoff games, the schools had not met since the mid-1990s when they had back-to-back regular season games, both of which were won by the Buffs. They prevailed in a home game in 1994, 29-14, and then came back the next year with a 30-14 victory at Heights.
Hill has told his squad that there are no weak teams left at this stage of the season, and that is certainly true of the Falcons.
Under Harrison's tutelage, the Falcons have been dominant in six of their seven wins, with a margin of just more than 30 points. Their three losses have come against Derby, Bishop Carroll and Wichita Kapaun-Mt. Carmel. That trio comprises the No. 1 ranked 6A and 5A teams (Derby and Carroll) and KMC is still alive in the 5A playoffs, too. Those three schools are a combined 29-1 in the win-loss column.
"Certainly we're excited to be where we are," Harrison said earlier this week in a telephone interview. "We've tweaked a few things from what coach Wheeler did, but nothing major. If a person came to our practices, they might see just a different feel, but the schemes are not that much different and are very similar to what he's (Wheeler) done."
That means a ground-oriented veer option offense that creates big-play opportunities.
The Falcons average 315 yards rushing, rarely putting the ball in the air. They have thrown just 36 times in 10 games, but nine of those have averaged 22.6 yards per catch.
"They (Harrison and staff) have their own signature on how they do things," Hill said of the first-year Falcons coach.
Leading the ground attack for Heights is sophomore Tre King, who has 740 yards on 120 attempts (6.2 average). Junior Trenton Autry is close behind with 625 yards (6.7 average), followed by senior Jermaine Wiley (423 yards, 6.5 average) and senior quarterback Forlanda Parker (262 yards, 5.3 average). As a group, the runners average 6.3 yards on each touch.
"In the playoffs, you have to be able to make adjustments as the game is being played," Hill said. "It's a bonus for the seniors to have one more game at home, and I couldn't be more proud of how this group has responded time after time this year."
Defensively, Harrison likes his squad, despite giving up the big score to Topeka High as well as 45 points to Carroll. Their losses to Derby and Kapaun were by 22 and 13 points.
"Up until last week, I would have said the defense had been one of our strengths," Harrison said. "Topeka's talented. Our defensive line had been pretty dominant up until then. Certainly I don't think we've played our best, and we will have to do that to come away with a win."
But Hill knows the Falcons defense will present challenges to the Buffs' offense, which for the most part has been balanced this season, although they were forced to go to the air against Northwest a week ago when Greyson Tempel threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns as the ground game stalled out with just 85 yards.
"Their extremely athletic, perhaps the most athletic group we've seen all year," Hill said of Heights' defense. "We've got our hands full because they really create havoc for you."
Of Garden City, Harrison said he sees a much different team than the two that visited Heights in 2010 and 2011.
"They play fast and aggressive," Harrison said of the Buffs' defense. "We've got our work cut out for us. They're well-coached. They have tough kids, and they play to the whistle."
On the Buffs' offense, Harrison was equal with his praise.
"Their quarterback (Greyson Tempel) is pretty good and after watching film, you just know you've got to try and contain him," Harrison said of the GCHS quarterback. "By far, he's the best QB we've seen."
Indeed, Greyson Tempel has been the ignition switch to the Buffs' offense this season.
The 5-11, 175-pound senior has now passed for a school-record 2,156 yards (126-of-231, 54.5 percent) and thrown for 23 touchdowns while being intercepted eight times. But the dual-threat QB also has accounted for 1,222 rushing yards and another 18 TDs. But he's got plenty of weapons to spread the wealth.
On the receiving end, 6-5 junior receiver Caleb Tramp has 49 catches for 897 yards and 10 TDs while Greyson's brother, Dusty, has hauled in 42 passes for 808 yards and eight scores. Mitchell Hernandez has snared 23 passes for 380 yards and four TDs. Providing running support is sophomore Jared Koster, who has come on strong in the last half of the season, accounting for 609 yards and nine touchdowns. He had two TD runs against Northwest while Tramp and Dusty Tempel each caught a pair of scoring passes.
A win on Friday sets up a trip to the state semifinals, again something the Buffs have not experienced since 2005, when they faced Hutchinson. The winner of the Buffs-Falcons gets the winner of the Derby-Manhattan contest. That game will be played on Nov. 22.
most likely at the easternmost school.