Brian Hill will be the first football coach to tell you that the season opener is no predictor of how good a team might be by the end of the eight-game regular season schedule.
But he’ll also be the first to tell you that he’ll get an early indicator of just where his Garden City Buffaloes stand after the Week 1 contest.
In his eight previous seasons, the Buffs have gone 3-5, winning the last three after suffering five season-opening setbacks to Scott City, Bixby, Okla. and Olathe East. Their three most recent opening wins have been once against Olathe East and the last two against Wichita East.
So Friday night, when Hill’s ninth edition of the Buffaloes faces perhaps its most daunting opener in a decade, he’ll take the results with a grain of salt, pull up the Buffs’ bootstraps and look to improve each week of the 2018 campaign.
That’s because the Buffs, with a nearly entire new starting lineup (three returners on offense, four on defense), will travel to Derby to face the powerhouse Panthers.
It’s a program that has captured three Class 6A state titles in the last five seasons (2013, 2015, 2016), and was runner-up just a year ago to Blue Valley North in a shootout of shootouts, 49-42.
“Derby is the new standard in 6A statewide,” Hill said on Tuesday during his weekly preview interview. “They’ve been really successful, and I’d say right now we’re in the infant stages of where they are.”
Brandon Clark, Hill’s counterpart of the Panthers, has guided his program to a 104-36 record in a dozen years.
While the Panthers, too, don’t have a lot of returning starters (at least on offense), they do return six defensive starters from the 11-2 state runner-up team.
“Last year, our defense was really banged up and we relied on our offense,” Clark said in a Tuesday telephone interview. “But with the group we have back, our defense right now is the backbone of our team.”
The Panthers have a truckload of players, though, that have come up through the successful Derby program, and Clark traditionally has only started juniors and seniors, with this year’s 22 starters only having one true underclassmen (freshman/sophomore) starter.
Clark’s defense, which he says has been well ahead of the offense during preseason practice, has eight seniors and three juniors who will start. Headlining that group is 6-2, 265-pound junior end Tyler Dorsey, linebacker Cade Linsey and safety Hunter Igo, who switched over to quarterback a year ago, after Grant Adler was hurt, and produced more than 1,400 passing yards and 1,100 rushing yards, accounting for 33 touchdowns.
But Clark has Adler, a 6-3, 185-pound junior, back under center and he’s now healthy.
“He’s really improved his passing skills, his leadership has gotten better on and off the field and he’s just done a good job,” Clark said of Adler, who also starts for the Derby basketball team and is the top pitcher on the school’s baseball team.
Adler will hand the ball off to junior running back Tre Washington, a backup a year ago, but Clark indicated the 5-10, 195-pound junior would likely have started for any other school in 2017.
Despite going into the opener against Garden City, Clark is cautious about how he sees the intriguing matchup since he and Hill are close friends, having been on the 2012 Shrine Bowl staff together.
“They’ve got kids with size and they’re terrifically coached,” Clark said of the Buffs. “I compare them a lot to us in the make-up of the school, the size, the community support. It hasn’t been hard to keep our kids focused. Garden’s got 100 percent of our respect and we look forward to it. For us, and I’m sure Brian is the same way, it’s a week for us to start and then work to get better.”
Hill echoed his counterpart’s sentiments, with a bit of a twist on the inexperience and youth factor.
“His inexperience is juniors and seniors, and I’ve got an offensive lineman (Aaron Segovia) who played at Kenneth Henderson (middle school) last year,” Hill said. “We’re going to go and give our best effort, play hard and work to get better. This is a whole new group, and so we’re going to have some growing pains along the way.”
Still, Hill likes the makeup of his group, indicating that the group had worked hard all summer and into the fall preseason drills.
“We’ve got a lot of good young players, and they’ve now been in our program for five years or more,” Hill said of the fact that he now oversees the entire youth football program in town. “We’re in the middle of this process, and I think the biggest thing is that there is a benefit of knowing the system when they get to high school, and this is the biggest freshman class I’ve had (45).”
With so little experience returning, the Buffs also will have a new backfield in junior quarterback Carlos Acosta, running back Avey Arana and a nearly new receiving corps with only senior Tye Davis returning (39 catches, 562 yards, 6 TDs).
“This group will be part of a process to perform and grow up in a hurry for the next week,” Hill said. “We just want them to keep competing no matter what.”
Hill, as does Clark, has a high regard for his coaching peer.
“They probably have the best group of coaches who make in-game adjustments,” Hill said of the Panther staff that now counts former GCHS assistant Derek Goble on Clark’s staff. “Their communication, coach-to-coach, and coach-to-player, is as good as I’ve seen. When they get you down, they know how to close the deal. They’ve played a lot of games, huge games, so there’s nothing too much that they haven’t experienced.”
Weather outlook: The temperature on Friday in Derby is expected to be in the mid-90s during the afternoon and early evening hours. Gametime temps predicted to be in the high 80s. When the teams last met in Panther Stadium in late November, the temperature was hovering in the low 20s and gusty winds prevailed, sending wind chills down nearly to the single digits.