By BRETT MARSHALL
It's been just four seasons since the Garden City High School bowling team qualified for its first Class 6A state tournament in Wichita.
But since then, the Buffs and Lady Buffs have made their presence felt at the pinnacle of high school bowling events each March.
The most recent noise came in 2013 when the boys squad placed third among the 12 competing teams to bring home a trophy, which matched the same third-place hardware captured by the Lady Buffs in 2011.
In addition, then freshman Tristan Funk placed seventh, giving the boys their first top-10 individual finisher to go along with the double-medal performance of Rikkie Hemmert, who was state runner-up in 2011 and sixth-place in 2012. Senior Juan Ramirez was 12th and also earned a medal for his top 20 finish.
Now, it's up to the boys to see if they can move up the ladder on Thursday when the team competes at North Rock Lanes in Wichita for the 2014 championship.
The boys will compete at 9:30 a.m., while the girls start at 2 p.m.
"I know the girls wanted to make it, and we wanted them to make it, so we're just gonna push more to win for the senior girls and for Garden City," said senior captain Theron Kells. "We know what we need to do, and the next step up is coming in more and getting the great shots and shaking off the bad ones. Our group has really supported each other, and we've not gotten down this year. We're confident going in — we've bowled a lot in Wichita, and the sky's the limit."
Unlike regular-season tournaments where the teams bowl a three-game series and then follow up with a Baker format of five bowlers rolling two frames for a one-game total, the state tournament is based solely on the three-game series.
Six bowlers will compete for the Buffs, and in each game the best four scores count toward the overall team series. For individual awards, all three games count toward the series total and the top 20 earn medals.
Senior Jarett Landgraf was the top qualifier for the Buffs at the regionals a week ago at West Acres Bowl in Wichita, shooting a 663 series, good for sixth place. Kells has captained the team this year to both a Western Athletic Conference title, and the regional runner-up finish. Those two will be joined by sophomores Funk, Mickey Bridges and Ryan Strecker, and freshman Karl Larson Jr.
"I hope the experience of last year just reminds them that this is another day at the lanes," said head coach Kip Nichols. "Is it important? Yeah. But the key for this is not to get caught up in the excitement of the state tournament. It's easy to let the emotions get away. Stay calm, and we'll bowl well."
Additionally, junior Alexa Hemmert, younger sister of Rikkie, and sophomore Haily Park qualified for the Lady Buffs as individuals at last week's regional tournament at West Acres Bowl in Wichita. Hemmert placed fifth to earn her ticket to the state with a 584 series while Park captured the final individual qualifying spot with a 562 series. The girls team finished fifth, two places out of advancing to the state meet. Hemmert was a freshman on the girls fourth-place team in 2012 while Park is making her first trip to state.
"It's a focus thing, and I've worked hard all year to improve and it's paid off," Hemmert said. "I've never bowled as an individual, so it will be a new experience. Rikkie's helped me a lot. She's gone to so many camps, and North Rock is where they bowl, so we're familiar with the lanes. If I know what the shot's going to be like, I'll be set."
Park has seen a steady climb throughout her first varsity season, and the final month of the season has seen her at, or near the top, for the Lady Buffs.
"I feel a lot more comfortable and I've been able to clear my mind when bowling," Park said. "I've been more relaxed, keep my head up and be positive. Having the boys there to cheer us on will be a big help, too. I'm looking forward to it."
The team was scheduled to depart today and was to arrive in Wichita in time for a 4 p.m. practice sesssion at North Rock Lanes.
The nine-team field for the boys, in addition to the Buffs, includes Wichita Northwest, Dodge City, Olathe East, Olathe North, Olathe South, Wichita Southeast, Junction City and Derby. Olathe North is the defending team champion. Campus, last year's runner-up, did not qualify.