By BRETT MARSHALL
When the Garden City Buffaloes' boys bowling team left North Rock Lanes in Wichita last February with a third-place trophy safely in hand, head coach Kip Nichols knew it could possibly be a prelude to something even better.
And his senior captain, Theron Kells, couildn't agree more.
Three members off that bronze-medal finish return, along with one bowler who returns after sitting out a year to wrestle in 2013.
"As a group, we're still young, but we have a lot of experience," said Nichols, the only coach of the GCHS bowling team since its inception in 2007. "Other teams took a hit — both teams in our conference, and at the state level — so I really like where we're at as the season gets ready to start."
That start begins at 1 p.m. today at Hard Rock Lanes, where the Buffs will host their three Western Athletic Conference rivals — Great Bend (defending conference champs), Dodge City and Liberal — in a round-robin of dual matches.
After bowling a three-game set against each team, the four will then be seeded. Then, the teams move into the Baker format, a more difficult format in which each of the five bowlers roll only two frames each and they cannot bowl those in consecutive order. In essence, Nichols puts his bowlers in an order that produces a 1-6, 2-7, 3-8, 4-9, 5-10 order of frames.
"The competition has been good and I've been tracking numbers, and we were within 75 pins of our state tournament score," Nichols said. "That's pretty good for this early. So we know there's a ceiling for us to go higher."
Kells, the lone senior of the six varsity bowlers, said there was plenty of reason for optimism as the 2014 season strikes today.
"I feel like, as a team, we have the best chance of going undefeated (in WAC)," Kells said. "We want to keep things low-key, but the majority of our guys went to state and how how loud it gets and how much pressure there can be. We've got good chemistry with this group, and my job is to make sure we have more ups than downs."
The top returner from a year ago is sophomore Tristan Funk. As a freshman, Funk finished seventh individually at the Class 6A state meet, having rolled a 678 series (211-243-224), and just missing a top-five finish by two pins. Also back from that team is sophomore Mickey Bridges.
Juan Ramirez was the lone senior off that group, but also missing is Ethan Yardley, who suffered a broken arm in the fall and will sit out this season to rehab; and Braden Davidson, who is academically ineligible.
The three new faces will be Jarett Landgraf, a senior, who opted to wrestle a year ago after being a starter for the Buffs' bowlers his sophomore season. Sophomore Ryan Strecker, and freshman Karl Larson, Jr. round out the top six.
"I'm excited to see where we are, see how this group manages itself under competition," Nichols said. "It's huge for us to be able to be at home to start the season. There's no traveling, we can sleep in our own beds. It's a big lift for us."
On the girls' side, Amanda Deihl will lead the way. The senior captain was the lone qualifier for the state tournament a year ago, where she finished 35th in a field of approximately 70 bowlers.
"It should be an exciting season since we only lost one from last year (Vicki Newell)," said Deihl. "I really like the young girls who have moved up. They're already good, and as far as I can tell, we just need to bowl well, and then scream for our teammates."
Deihl is the lone upperclassman on the six-bowler roster. Two of the three juniors — Alexa Hemmert and Jensen Strasser — form a strong nucleus. Hemmert is in her third year on varsity and Strasser in her second season. Sophomore Emma Stoecklein also returns after a solid freshman season. For junior Courntey Keller, it will be her first varsity match, as it will be for sophomore Haily Park.
"What I've taken from the captains of the past two years is that you can't get too low and realize that we have to help our teammates," Deihl said. "Being at home, I love it. It's just easier to bowl at home. The experience of going to state last year reinforces that I know I can do it."
Over the past three seasons, the Buffs have put themselves in a position to move into the hierarchy of Class 6A state programs. The girls have had a third and fourth, while also having an individual runner-up (Rikki Hemmert in 2011), along with the boys third-place finish a year ago and Funk's top 10 finish.
"I think we've proven to the rest of the state that there's serious bowling going on out here in western Kansas," said Nichols, who also reminded that Great Bend won the Class 5A boys state last season. "Great Bend lost five of their top six and their girls lost three of the six."
Today will be the start of a busy eight-week schedule for the Buffs. On Saturday, they travel to Wichita for the 10 a.m. Bishop Carroll Invitational at West Acres Bowl.
2014 GCHS Bowling Varsity Roster
Girls--Amanda Deihl, Sr.; Alexa Hemmert, Jr.; Courtney Keller, Jr.; Haily Park, So.; Jensen Strasser, Jr.; Emma Stoecklein, So.
Boys--Mickey Bridges, So.; Tristan Funk, So.; Jarett Landgraf, Sr.; Karl Larson Jr., Fr.; Theron Kells, Sr.; Ryan Strecker, So.
Jan. 9--HOME (WAC Invite with Dodge City, Liberal, Great Bend), 1 p.m., Hard Rock Lanes; Jan. 11--at Wichita Bishop Carroll Invitational; Jan. 14--HOME vs. Liberal, 3 p.m., Garden Bowl; Jan. 21--HOME vs. Great Bend, 3 p.m., Hard Rock Lanes; Jan. 25--at Great Plains Bowling Invitational, North Rock Lanes, Wichita; Jan. 28--at Dodge City, 3 p.m.; Feb. 6--at Liberal, 3 p.m.; Feb. 11--at Great Bend, 3 p.m.; Feb. 13--HOME vs. Dodge City, Hard Rock Lanes, 3 p.m.; Feb. 20--WAC Tournament, at Great Bend, 12:30 p.m.; Feb. 27--Class 6A Regional at West Acres Bowl in Wichita, 10 a.m.; March 6--Class 6A state tournament, Wichita, North Rock Lanes, 10 a.m.