By BRETT MARSHALL
It will have been three weeks and three days on Tuesday when the Garden City Buffaloes boys and girls basketball teams return to the court, traveling to rival Dodge City for the opening game of the Western Athletic Conference double-round robin schedule that occupies the bulk of the January-February regular season.
Both teams last played on Dec. 14 in the Clarion Inn Southwest Classic and both finished off the first two weeks of the season with identical 4-2 records, but their route to that record certainly looked anything but similar.
The Buffs' boys went 2-1 in both the Hays City Shootout and the Southwest Classic, and capped off the six-game set with a 58-52 victory over Pueblo (Colo.) East, one of that state's top Class 4A teams. The Lady Buffs, meanwhile, swept their three games, with their 56-42 over Pueblo East in the finale being the closest test they had. That came after a disappointing 1-2 start at the Hays Shootout the week prior.
Now, though, the games take on a new importance as the teams seek to pursue WAC titles, the boys trying to battle favored Hays for the crown while the Lady Buffs set out to defend their title from a year ago when they went through unblemished with an 8-0 record.
The last time the Buffaloes' teams saw the Red Demons it was at the Class 6A sub-state tournament in late Feb. and early March. On back-to-back days, the Lady Buffs were upset 37-36 in the semifinals by the Lady Red Demons while the Buffs' boys then knocked off Dodge City, 40-37, in the championship game to advance to the state tournament for the first time in six seasons.
Now the league slate is clean for all the teams, and both boys coach Jacy Holloway and girls mentor David Upton are eager to see their teams back in action.
"In the big picture of the first six games, we had some kids who don't normally play a lot, step up," Holloway said of his squad. "We had a lot of games with different scorers. So in that way, we've got some balance offensively and we're shooting just a little better than 45 percent."
The Buffs' only setbacks came against Hays in the Shootout finals and to Denver South in the Southwest Classic. And Holloway, who has blended a number of newcomers with seniors Hunter Delgado, Tristan Nanninga and Emilio Parr, says the Buffs still are far from being the team they possibly could be.
"We've had fewer turnovers and we're getting better shots when we run our sets," Holloway said. "After looking at our stats and some film during the break, we're rebounding the ball better than I thought. There's a lot of positives — we've got good depth and athleticism."
It is on the defensive end of the court, though, where Holloway says the Buffs can get better.
"We've got some work to do on that end," Holloway said. "They've got to have a better understanding of where they need to be. The effort hasn't been bad, but intelligent effort is the issue. We've done a decent job of taking away teams' strengths in a couple of games, but then we lose focus. We seemingly play down to the level of teams when we could be winning more impressively."
But Holloway liked the final game of the December schedule when they knocked off Pueblo East, a team they had lost to by 23 points a year earlier.
"It was as total a game as we've played offensively and defensively," Holloway said.
And he expects to get the best shot from the Red Demons, who despite a 1-3 start, always seem to play their best against the Buffs.
"Dennis (Dodge coach Hamilton) always has his teams prepared no matter what," Holloway said. "They execute well on both defense and offense. There's not a lot of surprises. We know each other well."
For the Lady Buffs, it will be an opportunity to erase, perhaps a little, the disappointment of that sub-state loss to the Lady Demons last season. After two 20-plus point victories, the Lady Buffs played one of their poorest games of a season that saw them finish 17-4, the best in school history.
But Upton hasn't mentioned that game at all to this year's team. And for good reason.
"Haven't mentioned it one time," Upton said of that heartbreak defeat. "They (Lady Buffs) remember. But it's a new season, and we've got some new players. This is just one game, and we're going to go and do our best to win this one."
The Lady Buffs have been powered by the 1-2 scoring punch of junior Jaymie Bernbeck and senior Taryn Tempel. Bernbeck, leading the way with a 16.8 average, scored 65 points in the three wins in the Southwest Classic. Tempel, meanwhile, who has reached double figures in five of the six games, is averaging 13 points.
The Lady Demons bring a 2-2 season record into the WAC opener, and coach Kelley Snodgrass, formerly coach at Holcomb, will try to knock off the Lady Buffs once again.
"We did some defensive cleanup during the break," Upton said of the practice sessions. "Our structure is better and everybody's on the same page. Fundamental-wise, we're doing more good things. In the first three games, we had some lapses and weren't communicating. In the second three games, we ran things better. We still need to run our offense better, but I liked our effort."