By BRETT MARSHALL
It was always going to be an emotional game when Garden City hosted Dodge City on Friday night in the annual western Kansas shootout between the Buffaloes and Red Demons for bragging rights in The Hatchet Game. And it seems like the Hatchet Game always has its share of unpredictable, tense moments.
But not even Buffs' head coach Brian Hill could anticipate how different the emotions might be, and the effect it would have on him, his coaching staff, the players and fans alike.
Indeed, the sidelines on the GCHS side of Buffalo Stadium was nothing short of chaos from the time the Hutchinson-Maize game was being reported.
Not only was the Hatchet possession on the line, but a potential Class 6A district playoff berth also was at stake. With the somewhat murky marginal point differential in the mix of things with Garden, Hutch and Maize, final scores with margin of victories would be instrumental in determining which two teams would represent District 8.
As it turned out, when Maize scored a touchdown with 10 seconds left and kicked the extra point to pull within 33-31 of the Salthawks in Hutchinson, it all but knocked out the powerhouse Hutch team for the first time in 15 seasons.
That left it to Garden, who was comfortably ahead of the Demons, 35-13, after three quarters. They had been up 28-6 at halftime. Both of those margins would provide the Buffs with the maximum 21 points to put them at a plus-16 for the three game district schedule. Hutch's two-point win left the Salthawks at a plus-10 while Maize finished at a plus-17.
But the agony of the fourth quarter, with the Demons having multiple possessions and some of those in Garden City's half of the field, left Hill with an eerily, somewhat gut-wrenching feeling that a blowout win was more like a tie game.
"There was more stress in that 21-point victory than any I've been a part of," Hill said Sunday afternoon, 48 hours after the Hatchet was brought back to Garden City. "We got a halftime update (on Maize-Hutch) and then I tried to forget it and just coach the game like I normally would."
With Maize up at one point, 24-12, that would have created a foregone conclusion that any Buffs' win would put them in the playoffs. But then Hutch rallied to take a 9-point lead and all of a sudden it could have been Hutch (+19), Maize (-10) and Garden City trying to get more points than Maize. A Dodge City touchdown would have resulted in the Buffs not having enough marginal points to earn the playoff berth.
"The back and forth game in Hutch just created feelings that you never should have," Hill said. "You're beating your arch-rival, you're going to share the league (Western Athletic Conference) title and you didn't get to enjoy it. You want to make the playoffs and continue your season."
At one point in the fourth quarter, with Dodge City owning possession of the ball, Hill hollered at his defensive coaches to clearly express that a touchdown by the Demons would not be acceptable.
"It's hard enough to win the darned game, let alone try to win by a specific number," Hill said of the Hatchet Game. "It was just way weird. At that point, I didn't figure we'd lose the game. The Hatchet was secured, we're gonna win the WAC. Then, it's the playoffs and points and figuring things out."
It didn't help matters, either, that the Buffs had one touchdown run by Jared Koster called back by a penalty and a scoring opportunity was missed.
"We got no points out of it," Hill glumly said. "The magic number was 16 and I think one thing that helped was that with the game on TV, our game went longer so we were able to play the final minutes fully aware of what margin was needed. Everything was left in our control."
That didn't necessarily make things any more comfortable for Hill.
"In all honesty, I didn't feel a sense of relief until we took a knee on the final play of the game," Hill admitted. "I was just disappointed we couldn't put the game away earlier."
That's because there were two missed field goals and a missed extra point by the Buffs.
"The field goals would have been nice," Hill said. "You even make one of those and you can kind of put things on cruise control. Them (Dodge City) having the ball so much in the fourth quarter was more like playing the first quarter when the score was close. As crazy as it sounds, I was disappointed we couldn't put it away, even though you're winning by 21 points."
The last thing Hill wanted to occur was for his players, who had come back from the district basement after losing to Maize two weeks earlier, to miss a chance at the postseason playoffs.
"The kids understood the horrible feeling of walking off the field in 2012 (24-20 loss to Dodge) that cost us a playoff berth," Hill said. "The way they have been practicing, how hard they have worked, it would have been an ugly way to finish the season."
Hill admitted that the system has its quirks with the tiebreaker points, but with everyone keenly aware of the plusses and minuses, they knew what needed to be done.
"If the Hutchinson game (35-24 GCHS win the week prior) was the defining moment of our season, then the Dodge City win and getting into the playoffs and tying for the WAC was the re-definining moment," Hill said. "The last two weeks, we've been playing out of desperation. The kids made it up in their own mind not to let Hutch get in the way and not to let Dodge City spoil things, either."
As it's been said before, all's well that ends well. And thus it did for the Buffs.
"We'll take it any way we can get it," Hill said.
And with that victory over the Demons to secure the Hatchet, with the win by 21 points to secure a playoff spot, and gaining a tie for the WAC championship, the Buffs can now turn their attention to Wichita Northwest.
The Buffs (6-3) will hit the road as a district runner-up to face the Grizzlies (5-4), who claimed the District 7 title, for a 7 p.m. kickoff on Friday night at Northwest Stadium. It will be a game that the Buffs will simply be playing for a chance to reach the second round of the playoffs for the second time in Hill's four years of coaching at GCHS. That's all that is at stake.
Season notes: The Buffs' opponents this season compiled a record of 46-35 (.568). Bixby and Woodward, Okla. are 6-3 and 7-2 with one week of their regular season schedule left. Hays, Liberal, Maize and Hutchinson all had winnings records.
Only Great Bend, Wichita East and Dodge City had sub-.500 marks.
Wichita Northwest's nine foes were 34-47, for a .420 winning percentage.