By BRETT MARSHALL
If the budding basketball rivalry between Garden City and Holcomb's basketball teams ever came up with a nickname, it might well be served if it mentioned the High Plains or the Wild, Wild West.
But for the moment, Old Man Winter and Mother Nature might have their own ideas about whether or not the battle between the Finney County schools will even be played tonight.
As of press time Monday, the 6:30 p.m. girls' game scheduled for today, followed at approximately 8 p.m. by the boys' game, were still on the docket at Holcomb High School's gym.
With the Lady Buffs (9-5) taking on the Lady Longhorns (11-2), it will be Garden's opportunity to make it three straight wins in this brief series for the Class 6A school, while the Lady Longhorns (Class 3A) will try to get back on the winning track and knock off their big-sister school for the first time.
In the first two meetings, the Lady Buffs have come out on top. But the Lady Longhorns pushed the game into overtime in 2011 at the Perryman Athletic Complex before falling 57-56, and then dropped a 67-54 decision a year ago at The Garden.
On the boys' side, it will be a case of one team trying to gain the upper hand, each having won once in the previous two games.
The Buffs' boys won the initial game in 2011 by a 41-28 margin when the games were played at Perryman Athletic Complex on the Garden City Community College campus, while the Longhorns stung the Buffs by a 70-59 count a year ago at The Garden.
For the Lady Buffs and Lady Longhorns, the teams will be seeking to get back on the winning track. Garden City lost on Saturday to Andover Central, 55-45, in the consolation title game at the tough Newton Invitational, while the Lady Longhorns suffered a 52-48 setback at Hugoton on Friday.
"It's a pretty big game, as far as seedings go for state, sub-state, and just the rivalry overall," said second-year Holcomb coach Kenton Tennal. "The girls are thinking it's one of the biggest games of the year. They get into this more than any game of the year. I think living that close to each other, knowing each other that well, makes it more personal."
For GCHS coach David Upton, he knows that his team will have the added challenge of playing in the tighter confines of the 1,325-seat HHS gym where the fans are right at court side.
"It will be packed and it will be much more intense," Upton said. "It will be different, but that's high school basketball. It's a big game over at their place and we're both coming off losses and both want to get that taste out of their mouth."
Holcomb will be looking to its big four scoring threats of Haley Heydman, Taylor Deniston, Jordan Jarnagin and Kylee Amos for its offensive punch. While the Lady Longhorns average 62.7 points, those four combine to provide just under 60 of those. Deniston, a 5-foot-4 junior guard, leads the pack with 18.7 points, including a career-high 31 in Friday's loss at Hugoton. Heydman is right behind at 17.2, while Jarnagin, a 5-11 sophomore, averages 11.6 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds. Amos, a 5-6 senior forward, follows at 10.3 points.
"We know who they've got back and we'll focus on those because they provide the bulk of their points," Upton said of those four. "We know what they like to do, so it's a matter of whether or not we can stop them."
Tennal said his team will have to handle the pressure defense of Garden better than it did in the loss a year ago.
"We were playing pretty well, and then they started pressing us, and we hadn't seen that," Tennal said. "They killed us with it, and partly that was my fault. I think we can play with them. The big girl (6-3 Johna McClelland) was huge for them last year, altering shots, rebounding. We don't have to contend with her, and I think it should be a good matchup for us. It's nice to have home court, and it should be a lot of fun for both teams."
Coincidentally, the teams have five common opponents this year, three of those from the December Clarion Inn Southwest Classic. Both teams have won all five of those contests, with the Longhorns winning by an average of 23.8 points and the Buffs by an average of 26.2 points.
Before they went to Newton, the Lady Buffs were averaging 57 points, with 5-11 junior Jaymie Bernbeck leading the way with 17.5 points per game and 5-8 senior Taryn Tempel next at 12.3 points.
Just as the girls' game is critical at this stage of the season for potential seeding purposes in four weeks for sub-state, so will be the boys' game for the two teams in their sub-state seeding placement.
The Longhorns are 10-3 overall following Friday's 79-47 rout over Hugoton, while the Buffs have had a week to prepare after rolling over Ulysses 54-23 last Tuesday and are now 9-5 overall.
Just prior to those games, both teams were in mid-season tournaments, the Longhorns taking second in the Hillsboro Trojan Classic, losing 57-51 to No. 1-ranked Class 3A Hesston, while the Buffs went 2-1 and placed fifth at the Valley Center January Jam, winning their final two games.
"Garden City the last two weeks has been putting it together," said Holcomb coach Chad Novack. "They've got a good combination of bigs and guards, and I really think both teams match up as far as size and athleticism."
The Buffs have averaged 47.9 points per game and are giving up 41 points, while the Longhorns are averaging 60.1 and yielding 49.1 points. Senior Heath Tucker, healthy all this season after missing the bulk of his junior year, leads the 'Horns with 17.5 points a game, while 6-4 junior post Trey Sleep is right behind at 17.0 points and a team-high 5.8 rebounds. Dalton Gottschalk, a 6-3 junior, averages 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds.
And while some might think the Class 6A Buffs have nothing to gain by playing a Class 3A school, GCHS coach Jacy Holloway, himself a product of a Class 2A Kansas school (Moundridge), doesn't see it that way.
"I don't get caught up in the lose-lose concept for us in this game," Holloway said. "We're playing a very good team. Dodge City plays (Class 3A) Wichita Collegiate almost every year. They're a good team. That's what matters to me. Holcomb has played Liberal, and beaten them. That's one of our league schools. So we know they've got good players."
Holloway said the Longhorns' inside players are much different than the ones they faced a year ago.
"They had wide bodies last year, and we had trouble getting around them," Holloway said. "Their kids this year are more angled and more skilled than the players they had last year."
With Tucker playing on the perimeter, Holloway also says the guard play is much different than the group they faced a year ago, when Tyler LaSalle played perhaps his best game in a black and orange uniform when he unloaded for 15 points — 10 in the third quarter — on the Buffs.
"They're very solid and do a good job of running their offense," Holloway said of point guard Calen Rupp and Tucker. "We've got to be able to handle their defenses and we've got to be able to find a way to guard Tucker and Sleep."
The Buffs, meanwhile, have put together a mini three-game winning streak by playing their best basketball of the season.
Junior Caleb Tramp leads the team in scoring at 12 points per game, while senior guards Tristan Nanninga (9.2) and Hunter Delgado (7.3) are next. Jared Koster and Mitch Hernandez contribute 5.8 and 5.2 points per game.
After the teams have split the first two games, Novack sees another highly-competitive battle this time around.
"Coach Holloway has that program going, and they're playing hard, good basketball," Novack said. "It's good for us to play a high-caliber team that is seven miles away. It's only going to make us better."
With a mostly new lineup, the Longhorns have played consistently well all season. Sleep has been perhaps the biggest improvement, having played junior varsity ball the previous two seasons before stepping up to the varsity.
"He's improved a ton," Novack said of his junior center. "His confidence is up. He has worked incredibly hard to get better and shooting the ball hundreds of times a day has really helped his game."
Just like the girls' teams, the boys have multiple common opponents, and each has posted a 5-1 record against those teams. They have each beaten TMP-Marian, Liberal, Ulysses and Wichita Trinity. In the December Clarion Inn Southwest Classic, the Buffs beat Pueblo East, while losing to Denver South, and the Longhorns had just the reverse outcomes with the two Colorado schools. Their average winning margin in those games has been 14.8 for Holcomb and 17.5 for Garden City.
While the Buffs have been playing nine, sometimes 10 players with different rotations during this recent run, the Longhorns don't go deep into their bench.
"They don't play a lot of guys, but at this point in the season, they're in good condition, so I don't see it as a big issue," Holloway said.
And after playing in the spacious Perryman Athletic Complex and The Garden in the first two years, Holloway said the atmosphere in the smaller HHS gym will be an opportunity, as well as a challenge.
"It's good for our kids, all things considered," Holloway said. "It's good for us to play in that kind of an atmosphere. If we have to play on the road in the postseason, this will be good for us to learn from."
Weather Note: School officials indicated that if the imminent snow that was to start late Monday night forced either school to cancel classes today, they have tentatively planned to reschedule the games for Thursday.
Injury Update: The Longhorns lost two players last week to injuries and both are out for the season. Sophomore Scott Schmidt broke his foot in practice, while Joseph Jarnagin had a recurring knee injury sideline him.
Future Game, Location: Both GCHS athletic director Martin Segovia and his Holcomb counterpart, Jerry Johnson, have indicated the schools will play each other next season as part of the December Clarion Inn Southwest Classic. The game will most likely be played on a Saturday, the final day of the Classic, but site location has not been finalized.