By BRETT MARSHALL
When Brian Hill was named the head football coach at Garden City High School in the winter of 2010, he knew that he would need to have a long-range plan to return the Buffaloes to the hierarchy of Class 6A Kansas football.
Only once since the Buffs won their lone state gridiron championship in 1999, had the program encountered a winning season since 2002.
Mired in mediocrity, competitive at times, but never a consistent winner, the Buffs needed an injection and it was Hill who provided the needle.
Four seasons later, Hill and his Buffaloes are nearer to the top than the program has been in a long, long time.
The recently-completed 2013 campaign saw the Buffs, with a veteran cast of 27 seniors, compile an 8-4 record and reach the Class 6A semifinals where they were summarily dismissed by eventual champion Derby.
But the fact the Buffs made it that far is a testament to not only how Hill and and his staff have done their coaching job well, but how well those seniors and the ensuing underclassmen have bought into his philosophy.
For his team's performance, Hill has been named The Telegram's Coach of the Year.
"I'm really excited about how far we went and the way the kids performed," Hill said in a recent interview. "It goes all the way back to the way they prepared. It was very exciting, and the kids — the senior leadership — took hold a couple of times during the season and I was very proud of what they did each and every week."
Yes, there were times the Buffs could have simply folded the proverbial tent and headed home, closing out another ho-hum season.
In Hill's first three years, the Buffs had gone 5-5, 7-3 and 5-4, reaching the 6A playoffs three of those seasons but never advancing past the second round, and never getting that so-called signature win, or the one to get the program over the hump.
That all changed in 2013.
After suffering an embarrassing loss at home early in the year to Great Bend, the Buffs went on a three-game winning streak, rolling over Hays, Liberal and Wichita East. But then, once again, they stubbed their toe in a loss at Maize in the first round of the 6A districts.
"One thing we try not to do is panic," Hill said when looking back at those crossroad games. "You analyze the things you did wrong, understand what you need to do to get better and then you move forward. If you panic and over analyze, you can you lose your football team in those kinds of situations. You don't belittle them, or get after them in a way that you don't think is productive. I don't think the kids go out there trying to lose. They gave me their best effort each and every week."
The Buffs got what Hill then called his "signature" win, a 35-24 win over Hutchinson in a game they trailed 17-7 early in the third quarter. They would follow it up with a resounding 41-20 victory over Dodge City in the annual Hatchet Game, a game that also secured them the Western Athletic Conference title and a spot in the 6A playoffs.
"Those were all important games, for various reasons, to the eventual success of the season," Hill said. "The Hutchinson game will stick with me the longest, just because the program that Hutch has, and overcoming a 56-14 beating from the year before. Beating Dodge City and winning the Hatchet is always important for the school, the team, and the community. This year, we were in complete control in the second half, but because of the playoff implications, we had to be aware of the score, how many points did we need to get in the playoffs. It was the most stressful 21-point win, because it felt like a one-point game."
Going on the road to beat Wichita Northwest, getting the winning score with less than a minute left, set up the Buffs' second round match-up with perennial power Wichita Heights, a team that had easily manhandled the Buffs in playoff wins in 2010 and 2011. This time, though, the Buffs once again showed their resolve and rallied for a 35-28 victory to send them to Derby as one of the four semifinalists in Class 6A.
"When you look at who we've played, and who we've lost to in the playoffs, we've gotten beat by two state champions and one runner-up," Hill said. "I think that speaks volumes for how far we've come."
Hill recalled a meeting he had with his incoming freshman class of 2010, now the group of seniors that made 2013 so memorable.
"One of the things I talked with these seniors about when they came in as freshmen — before I officially took hold that summer — I sat them in a room all by themselves and said in four years we're both gonna be judged by the outcome of your (senior) season. Our goal is to win the state championship. Four years later, to come one game short of that goal, I think really was a promise that we both made to one another. I can honestly say that those kids never really questioned anything that I ever did — going to team camps, 7-on-7s, to things we did in the weight room. They never waivered one time. They held up their end, and I tried to do everything I could to hold up my end of the bargain.
"To see that come to fruition through four years of hard work, that really sets us up for these younger kids."
While Hill doesn't necessarily put it into words, the Buffaloes have been a blue-collar type of team in his four seasons. They play tough, hard-nosed defense, sometimes roll the dice like a riverboat gambler on offense thanks in part to his background as a high school and college quarterback, and it has paid dividends.
"We've proven over four years the kind of team, of who we are, what we're going to be," Hill said. "The expectations now are different. There's no 'well, this used to be like.' Now it's like this. These kids only know my way. The comfort level that it brings to them, shows to them what hard work can do."
For all his seasons of being an assistant junior college coach, and his first three seasons of coaching the Buffs, his fourth season stands out for many reasons.
"There were no real peaks or valleys during the year," Hill said. "We had some tough times, but every day I thought we worked hard, and we had fun at practice. These kids were committed to each other. They had the idea of being a team, the camaraderie of being together. That's why they were so successful, and that's why it was probably the most satisfying season I've had as a coach."