Anytime a team has to return the following year after winning a state championship, there is always a target placed on the team.

The Garden City High School girls bowling team clearly understands that role, and will have a chance to show its mettle Thursday afternoon at the Class 6A state tournament at Wichita’s North Rock Lanes.

The girls will start their defense at 1:40 p.m. following the boys tournament, which has the first ball scheduled to roll at 8:50 a.m. with two Buffs’ boys qualified — Brayden Bickett and Caidan Orozco — as individual competitors.

Having rallied in the final game of the 2017 state tourney to claim the program’s first girls team title (the boys won in 2016), the Buffs return five of the six bowlers off that championship squad.

Included in that group is 2017 state individual runner-up Ryleigh Whitehurst, and she is joined by returners Faith Whited, Karly Larson, Alexis Leon and Angelina Leeper, and this year’s newcomer Emilee Giger.

“We’ve walked around with a target on our back all year long,” said veteran GCHS coach Kip Nichols on Wednesday. “First tournament of the year at Bishop Carroll, we were the target and we won there.

“Three weeks later, we came back for the Great Plains Invitational (30 teams), and in the match play we went to the third game to decide and won every one of them. The girls have handled that mantra with a lot of class and a lot of fortitude.”

If there’s one quality that this group of bowlers has demonstrated, it has been consistency and depth.

Of the six bowlers, five have led the team’s individual series totals at matches this season. Newcomer Giger is the only one that has not finished as the team’s top bowler at a tournament or match thus far. The good news for the Buffs, and bad news for the rest of the state, is that all six of the girls are underclassmen and will return in 2019.

“Tomorrow’s another day with the target on our back,” Nichols said. “The girls we have know what it takes to be a state champion. They’ve dedicated themselves to improving every facet of their games, and they want to win it again.”

The Buffs’ strongest competition will come from Haysville-Campus, the team that led them into the final game of 2017, before the Buffs overtook them in the final Baker format game.

“Campus is probably much more prepared here in Wichita on their home lanes and will be much more at ease,” Nichols said.

Nichols said the other strongest competition will come from Wichita Northwest, Junction City and Topeka-Washburn Rural.

“We’ll have to keep our eyes on some teams for sure,” Nichols said, “but if we bowl to the best of our ability, and shoot the scores we’re capable of, it won’t matter what the other teams do.”

The format for the state tournament calls for the teams to first bowl three regular games, where the best four of six scores count for each team’s individual game total. Those scores are tallied for a three-game set, and that’s where the individual competition also is conducted.

Then, the format switches to Baker, in which the teams select five bowlers, who each rolls two frames each, but not consecutively. They will bowl four games in this format. The three regular series games and the four Baker games are then totaled to determine the team champion.