By BRETT MARSHALL
While students in the USD 457 school district still are enjoying the last days of their holiday vacation, Garden City High School and area athletes are gearing back up for the final two and a half months of the winter sports schedule.
Garden City's boys and girls bowling teams begin their respective seasons at 2 p.m. today with a Western Athletic Conference meet at Great Bend. Dodge City, Liberal and host Great Bend round out the four-team event.
The Buffs' basketball teams, after a 17-day layoff, jump back into WAC competition on Friday by hosting Great Bend at the New Garden. The Lady Buffs, who are 5-1, will tip-off at 6 p.m. with the boys game to follow at approximately 7:30 p.m.
On Dec. 18, the Lady Buffs rolled past arch-rival Dodge City, 60-37, to close out the pre-holiday schedule by equaling the best start in school history. The Buffs' boys, meanwhile, struggled in the fourth quarter against the Red Demons, eventually losing 50-35 to see their record slip to 4-2, still one of the best starts in the past decade.
The basketball teams have little rest following Friday's home games as they hit the road on Saturday to Topeka to face Topeka West, with the girls game starting at 5 p.m. and the boys game at approximately 7 o'clock.
The GCHS wrestling team, which last was on the mat on Dec. 15 at the Kansas City Stampede, travels to the Derby Invitational, with matches beginning Friday afternoon and the tournament concluding on Saturday. At the Stampede, where 36 teams from nine states competed, the Buffs saw some of the toughest competition they will see all season.
The Buffs finished a respectable 19th, with only Class 5A No. 1-ranked Arkansas City finishing ahead of them out of the Kansas schools that competed. Five wrestlers finished in the top 10 of their respective weight classes, led by junior Chris Adler's fourth-place and freshman Michael Prieto's fifth-place finish.
For coach Kip Nichols and the GCHS bowlers, it will be the debut tournament of the 2013 season.
The Buffaloes will have a mixture of youth and experience for both boys and girls, and that combination has given Nichols a positive outlook for the upcoming season.
"The toughest part is that Great Bend graduated almost nobody, and they won both boys and girls in the WAC last year," Nichols said. "But I believe that our boys can give them all they want. We've got as good a chemistry as any group I've had, and they are talented."
Heading the list of boys is senior Juan Ramirez, the top returner from the 2012 team and the leader in qualifying with a 210 average. Freshman Tristan Funk was second in qualifying with a 205 average.
"Juan has really stepped up his game from a year ago," NIchols said. "Tristan is one of the bright, promising bowlers we've had. He lives for bowling, and I think we will see great things from him."
In addition to those two, returners include senior Kieran Henderson and junior Theron Kells. Newcomers to the six-man roster for today include freshman Mickey Bridges and junior Avery Turner.
"The good thing is that we've got four or five on the junior varsity that puts us nine or 10 deep, and I wouldn't hesitate to have any of those on the varsity," Nichols said. "I think the future of the boys bowling over the next several years is as good as we've seen."
On the girls side, Nichols will be attempting to replace four graduated seniors who put the GCHS program on the map over the past two years. With Rikki Hemmert, now bowling at Newman University in Wichita, the Lady Buffs had fourth (2012) and third (2011) finishes at the Class 6A state tournament. Hemmert was sixth and second, individually, in those two seasons and both her runner-up finish and the team's third-place finish in 2011 were firsts for the program.
"We lost a lot, but I feel good about the girls we've got," Nichols said.
Senior Vicky Newell will anchor a relatively young team, while Alexa Hemmert, Rikki's younger sister, returns after competing for Nichols during her freshman campaign.
"Those two give us a strong nucleus," Nichols said.
Three juniors and one sophomore round out the varsity to begin the season for Nichols. That group includes juniors Amanda Diehl, Brittany Palomino and Tansy Park, and sophomore Jensen Strasser.
"There's not any varsity experience from that group, but I was really pleased with the way they bowled in practice," Nichols said. "We're in a rebuilding mode with the girls, but I'm not disappointed at all with the bowlers we have."
Following today's competition in Great Bend, the Buffs' bowlers will head to Wichita for Saturday's Bishop Carroll invitational.