For the past seven years, Garden City and Dodge City have gone toe-to-toe in the annual Hatchet Game, a tradition that dates back to 1938 and one that for historical purposes has been dominated by the Red Demons.
A 49-30-1 advantage will attest to that. And that's just playing for The Hatchet. One of the longest rivalries in Kansas, the two schools have been playing each other since 1903, with Dodge owning a 73-40
But talk about the modern era of the rivalry, pitting the only two Class 6A schools west of Hutchinson against each other, competing in the same league (Western Athletic Conference), and it’s a little different outcome.
Since the start of the new millennium in 2000, the Buffs own a commanding 12-5 margin. During that span, and going back to the end of the 20th century, the Buffs experienced their most successful run in the more than 100 years of playing the Red Demons when they prevailed 13 consecutive years from 1995 to 2007. Since then, it has been more the norm, with Dodge holding a 5-4 edge since 2008.
One thing is for sure, since the 2010 season, when Garden City’s Brian Hill and Dodge City’s David Foster took the reins of their respective programs, it has been anything but normal for most of The Hatchet Games.
With the new playoff system in its second season, the two 6A schools don’t have to worry about making the postseason, just be concerned about the seed they earn after Week 8’s end to the regular season.
In the seven seasons since both Hill and Foster have gone head-to-head, The coveted Hatchet Game has had its share of twists and turns, big comebacks, major snafus, and as much drama as one might get at a Shakespeare play.
“I don’t know if it matters when we play,” said Garden’s Hill. “It couldn’t be more unpredictable than (the games) we’ve had. You know both teams are going to play their hardest because both teams want to win The Hatchet.”
The Buffs will return home for the first time in a month after spending the last three weeks traveling (road wins at Hays and Liberal before a stinging 36-23 loss at Wichita Northwest last Friday).
“It’s just nice to know we’re gonna be home,” Hill said. “It seems like forever and we now get our students and the home crowd. We can’t wait to get out there.”
Hill had mixed feelings about the setback at Northwest after going 5-0 to start the season for the second straight year.
Taking advantage of multiple Grizzly miscues and penalties, the Buffs took command with a 23-6 halftime lead.
But things unraveled from there, as Northwest scored 30 unanswered points to prevail by the final 36-23 margin.
“As disappointed as I am in losing, I still saw a lot of positives,” Hill said. “A lot of goals still stand in front of us. We stood toe-to-toe with a good opponent on the road, and I think being on the road three weeks in a row, we just ran out of gas at the end. We were a half-step away from catching a pass, or just getting the ball to the wide receiver.
“Then, things reversed themselves in the second half, and Northwest was able to pin their ears back and come after us.”
Hill said he believed Dodge had regrouped a few weeks ago, and was now playing its best ball of the season, coming off a 12-7 gully-washer survival over Hays last Friday night when storms lashed western Kansas. The week before, they crushed Wichita South, 61-6. Those two wins came after the Demons were 1-3.
“We’re seeing more of a team that we’ve become accustomed to seeing,” Hill said of the Demons, who have gone more to the spread offense again with Beau Foster at quarterback. “They’ve spread things out and doing things that they’re good at. The last few weeks they’ve played really well, especially against Hays.”
For his take, Dodge City’s Foster echoed his counterpart about some of the crazy games where they’ve matched wits.
“It’s just the nature of the game, because not only is it important to the players and to the students, but it’s important to both communities,” Foster said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “There’s been games where we’ve dominated, and lost, and there’s been games where Garden looked like they’d win and we came up with some big plays to escape. I think that’s normal in a rivalry game. There’s obviously been some positives, but some of the games have been painful, too.”
Foster likened the rivalry to many other competitive aspects of the two southwest Kansas communities — the two largest in the area.
“It’s now like a slugfest, and it can be exhausting and exciting” Foster said. “There’s so much more involved. The two communities are similar in geographics and culture.”
Foster said he was pleased with his team’s recent turnaround, and cited strong line play from many young players and a defense that has made big strides in the last two weeks.
“Where we are right now, we had to go through some changes and we didn’t know how they would work,” Foster said. “The offensive line has come along, and the defensive line has been one of our strengths.”
Foster, who said he and his staff have great respect for Hill and his coaching staff, indicated that finding a way to slow down Garret Doll and the Buffs passing game would be critical.
“He’s their catalyst,” Foster said of Doll, who now has thrown for 1,080 yards (73-of-152, 12 TDs, 7 INT). “They’re throwing more than we’ve seen in the past, and they’ve got some great receivers who can hurt you at certain levels.”
Of the Buffs defense, Foster lavished praise.
“They’re similar to Hays in that they don’t give up many big, big plays,” Foster said. “They’re just very athletic, very big and they’re not gonna give up easy scores. That wins a lot of games for you.”
Class 6A Playoff Picture: If the Class 6A playoffs for the 16 teams in western Kansas were assigned this week prior to The Hatchet Game, Garden City would be the No. 7 seed and Dodge City the No. 10 seed.
Game 2 Possible (Playoffs): That would put them in the same bracket for the first round game, scheduled for Oct. 27, and with Garden being the higher seed, the first-round battle would be played at Buffalo Stadium.
The last time the teams played twice in the same season — regular season Hatchet and then Class 4A playoffs — was 1971. Garden City won both games, 12-7 for The Hatchet and 33-10 in the playoffs. The Buffs lost in the state title game to Bishop Ward that year, 37-0.