By BRETT MARSHALL
Before the 2012 football season kicked off for the Garden City Buffaloes, head coach Brian Hill said the team's progression in his third year at the helm might not be measured in wins and losses.
He said it would be more in how the team would compete week-in, week-out.
Hill couldn't have been more prophetic in his preseason comments.
With the exception of the opening blowout to Bixby, Okla. and the humbling loss to Hutchinson, this year's Buffs were in the thick of every game they played — wins and losses.
Only a last-minute loss to Hays and a dismal performance in the season-ending Hatchet Game at Dodge City prevented this year's Garden City team from being 7-2 rather than 5-4. It was just that type of season.
Whereas the 2011 season was a season of making the plays that produced a pivotal win, this year's squad was tagged with inconsistency and fumbling away potential wins.
There are reasons for the Buffs' 2012 slightly better-than-average record.
First, they had to replace most of their skill position players. Second, they had to survive a plethora of injuries to both offensive and defensive linemen. Third, they had a new placekicker and punter. It was all on a graduated learning curve for this year's edition of the Buffs.
When one looks back on the 2012 campaign, you couldn't really expect the Buffs to stay with Bixby. The Oklahoma school had the advantage of three preseason scrimmages against other teams while the Buffs didn't even get their own intrasquad scrimmage played due to weather.
They beat the teams they were supposed to beat, with the lone exception coming in the startling, heartbreaking loss to Dodge City in the Hatchet Game, the one that kept them from making the playoffs for the third straight season.
In an assessment of what ifs, the 29-21 loss to Hays was one of those games that could have ended with the Buffs on top. And if you don't turn the ball over six times, if you don't miss an extra point, if you don't miss a field goal, if Dodge City doesn't recover its own fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, if you don't fumble deep in your own territory to set up a short TD run by Dodge, and if you don't have the weirdest center snap and defensive pickoff of a ball in mid-air for an 82-yard TD return — all of those "ifs" — then the Buffs win this game going away. But that's not what happened.
This edition of the Buffs could have caused a coach, and certainly fans, to have all sorts of stomach disorders. At the same time, there were plenty of exhilirating moments. I'll always remember the 276-yard rushing effort by Greyson Tempel in the 45-28 romp at Great Bend. He added in a pair of TD passes for good measure in one of the best offensive shows ever displayed by a Garden City football player.
Three years into his program construction project of GCHS football, one could say that Hill and his staff have a solid foundation in place. They've gone 5-4, 7-2 and 5-4 in regular season play, they've made the playoffs two of the three years and just barely missed a third venture into the postseason. They've won a playoff game, too, with both playoff losses coming to 6A power Wichita Heights on the road.
They still have a ways to go to become the power that Hill envisions. That was never more evident than the spanking they got at Hutchinson. The Salthawks have won seven of eight 5A and 6A state championships and are the standard by which Kansas high school programs today are measured.
The last time the Buffs had three consecutive regular-season winning campaigns was in 1999 (technically, 2000, Jim Mireles' first year at 7-2), the year they won the school's only state championship in Class 6A. That was the end of the Dave Meadows tenure, when the controversial coach resigned under pressure for off-field actions. But he did build the Buffs into a state power, recording an 87-34 (.719 percentage) record during 12 seasons. He, too, never had a losing season and produced perennial playoff contenders on a regular basis.
When Hill took the reins for the 2010 season, the Buffs had not had a better than .500 record in four seasons. Under Mike Smith, the Buffs were respectable and competitive, the 2005 season being the highlight, when a 4-5 regular season turned into magic when they went all the way to the 6A sub-state championship game before losing to Hutchinson.
Hill would be the first to tell you that he is happy with the progress the program has made, but at the same less than satisfied with what has been the result. Still, there's much to like about what he's doing with the Buffs' football program. And, knowing that he isn't satisfied, people have to realize that he's working his tail off to bring the program into the elite level it once enjoyed.
They've seen what it takes to be on the mountaintop (see Heights and Hutchinson). They know what it is like to face a team such as Bixby, Okla. There are no surprises looming on the horizon for the 2013 schedule.
Hill will do everything he can to make sure the Buffs are ready for that challenge.
Time will tell how much more Hill's program construction project has progressed.
Sports Editor Brett Marshall can be emailed at email@example.com.