Now entering his 12th season as the program’s only coach, Garden City High School’s Kip Nichols has overseen the development of one of the top Class 6A bowling programs in Kansas.

He’s had a pair of state runner-up individuals on the girls side, he’s had a state, a state gold-medal winner on the boys side (Tristan Funk, 2016) and in the past two years has mentored the Buffaloes to a boys state team championship (2016) and a girls state title (2017).

During that decade-plus tenure, Nichols has developed his preseason qualifying rounds in a way that puts his team members front and center, fully aware of what it will take to qualify for the top six slots on each team.

So when the veteran coach says that the post-Thanksgiving week of qualifying, in which the team members bowl 12 games over a four-day stretch at the two Garden City bowling alleys (Garden Bowl and Hard Rock Lanes), was as competitive as he’s seen, well, perhaps he has a crystal ball as to what the 2018 season might look like.

“On both the boys and girls sides, our overall qualifying score averages were about 8 to 10 pins higher than they’ve ever been,” Nichols said Thursday, two days in advance of their season-opening tournament, the Bishop Carroll (Baker) Invitational in Wichita. “When I look at the numbers that the kids produced in qualifying, it’s the strongest overall in the program that I’ve seen.”

High praise considering that he has a veteran cast of bowlers on both the girls and boys squads.

When the Buffs’ girls won the 6A state title last March in Wichita, then sophomore Ryleigh Whitehurst placed second, but the team also had three other bowlers finish in the top 10 and a fourth that medaled with a top 20 finish.

The girls rallied in the final game of the tournament to defeat Haysville-Campus by a mere 11 pins (3143 to 3132).

In addition to Whitehurst, now a junior, Nichols returns sophomore Angelina Leeper, junior Alexis Leon and sophomore Karly Larson. Also returning is junior Faith Whited, who placed 28th at state, but also led the qualifying for this year’s season opener.

“One of the biggest things is that the kids are pushing each other in qualifying, and in practice each day,” Nichols said. “They don’t like to lose. And I think that will make them mentally tougher.”

Nichols said the program is focusing on the Im3 philosophy, which places the team’s goals first, then focusing on your teammates, and then on oneself.

“By putting the team goals first, it puts the emphasis to do everything to help the team, be a good teammate,” Nichols said.

The newcomer to the girls roster for the opener is sophomore Emilee Giger, who nailed down the final qualifying spot.

While the boys took a bit of a back seat to the girls in 2017, they still were able to bring home a third-place trophy, and from that squad, Nichols welcomes back three full-time starters and two others who started part-time.

Leading the pack was junior Aaron Schafer and senior Kristopher Henderson, both of whom averaged around 213 for the 12-game qualifying, something Nichols said had never happened. Schafer was the highest finisher at state for the Buffs with a 626 series.

“We’ve never had two bowlers average that high in qualifying, so I’m excited to see how they perform,” Nichols said.

Also returning is junior Brayden Bickett and part-time starters senior Jacob Griffin and junior Greg Landgraf.

The Bishop Carroll event on Saturday utilizes the Baker format for its 12-game, one-day competition. Baker is where each team uses five bowlers, each bowling one free at a time, but not consecutively, thus each of the five bowlers rolls two frames for the one-game team total.

The Buffs will compete over 10 games in pool play, and then teams are seeded into a final two-game round to determine final standings. The first home match for the Buffs will be a 3 p.m. Western Athletic Conference dual with Liberal on Tuesday at Hard Rock Lanes.