When the playoff brackets were filled in late last Friday night, after the conclusion of the eight-game regular season schedule, Garden City High School head football coach Brian Hill had a mix of emotions.
He was still trying to come to grips with his team’s 20-7 loss at home to Great Bend, a game about which he still scratches his head with how the Buffs played.
So when he saw that the Buffs, the No. 6 overall seed of the 16 teams in the Class 6A West division bracket, would host the Junior Blues of Topeka-Washburn Rural, there was a sense of excitement.
That first-round playoff game is set for a 7 p.m. kickoff Friday at Buffalo Stadium. The winner moves on to the Nov. 3 second round and the loser turns in uniforms on Monday. It’s a one-and-done — win and move on — deal.
Hill’s response to seeing Rural as the opening round opponent wasn’t so much that Rural is coming in with a 4-4 record compared to the Buffs’ 6-2 mark, but it was the fact that his team and his staff get to prepare for a team they have not seen.
“There’s no doubt that Rural is a darned good football team, and a pretty darned good 4-4 team,” Hill said earlier this week. “They play in a tough, tough league (Centennial).”
But for Hill the challenge of seeing a new defense, and for his staff to see a new offense, that’s part of the excitement of the second year seeding of the teams in the West after dispatching the antiquated district system.
“I love to see a new team, and what challenges they present,” Hill said. “It’s a bit like chess. You don’t know what moves to make because you don’t really know what your opponent is going to do.”
To put some perspective on the two teams that will battle it out Friday, one has to go back a year to the 2016 playoffs.
Garden City’s perfect season came to a crashing halt in the second round when they were summarily dismissed by Lawrence-Free State, 42-7. The following week, Washburn Rural also was eliminated from the postseason by the Firebirds, but just barely, falling 17-14.
The Junior Blues, as did the Buffaloes, were hit hard by senior graduation, with both losing 20-plus players to graduation.
How those teams have re-tooled for 2017 is part of the journey for both Hill and his counterpart, Steve Buhler.
“Overall, we knew coming in that we were going to be young,” Buhler, in his fifth season (23-23, .500), said in a Tuesday telephone interview. “It’s been a maturation process that we knew would take some time to gain experience, but it’s gone slower than we thought.”
Then, starting quarterback Jordan White broke a leg, and was replaced by Mike Schurig (6-1, 180, Sr.), who is the son of Washburn University head coach Craig Schurig.
All Schurig has done in reserve is throw for 1,208 yards (92 of 169 with four interceptions, nine touchdowns).
“He’s done a good job for us,” Buhler said of Schurig.
White has since recovered from his broken leg and returned to the Blues’ lineup two weeks ago, and in his second game back last Friday, rushed for 127 yards in a 42-0 romp over Topeka West, with Rural winning the week before over Topeka Seaman, 35-21.
“Things have kind of evened out for us on offense with Jordan returning,” Buhler said. “We’ve had to compete in a league, when you’re young it’s gonna be awfully tough. It’s hard to go toe-to-toe.”
For Garden’s Hill, the chess game will be trying to stop an offense that has been more balanced of late, with Schurig having two outstanding receivers in Preston Williams (6-2, 180, 29 catches, 477 yds, six TDs) and Braeden Breckenridge (5-10, 160, 22 catches, 256 yds, five TDs).
“They’re well-balanced on offense, and on defense they are extremely active and fly around to the football,” Hill said. “By formation, they do more things on offense than anybody we’ve seen, so it becomes imperative that we communicate and identify where they are.”
Buhler knows all too well about the usual travel challenges of teams from eastern Kansas coming to the western edge of the state, but he’s a former assistant at Great Bend, so he knows the route to Garden City.
“We played Dodge City in the first round, so we know about going to play the west schools,” Buhler said. “We want to make it (trip west) comfortable for the kids, but we don’t want to make it an excuse.”
Buhler also knows his team will have a bigger offensive and defensive line to scheme against than in most previous games this season. And that’s been a struggle.
“They’ve got some powerful, big kids, and that’s something that has given us trouble this year,” Buhler said. “They like to mix it up — they can throw, and they’ve got some talented receivers. You’re not preparing for a one-dimensional team.”
For Hill, a big challenge will be to remove the sour taste of a less than full effort in the loss to Great Bend at home last Friday.
“We’re still a good football team, but we’re not a good football team when we don’t have that extra effort from everyone,” Hill said. “I think we’ve got the kids to understand that. We’ll find out on Friday, because it will take that kind of an effort to win the game.”
A win by the Buffs and a victory for Topeka High would send Garden on the road for round two on Nov. 3. Should Topeka High get upset by a 1-7 Wichita South team, Garden would host. The same scenario would play out for the Junior Blues.