When Garden City's Buffaloes football team runs onto the turf tonight at Buffalo Stadium to meet up with the Hutchinson Salthawks in a Class 6A district battle, it will be a little bit of deja vu.

If one could turn the time machine and go back to 1997, on the sidelines for the two schools were Dave Meadows for the Buffs and a youngster by the name of Randy Dreiling, who had been an assistant at Salina South prior to taking over a moribund, if not nearly dead, high school football program.

Whereas, the Buffs were going through one of their most successful runs in school history under the grizzled, tough-minded Meadows. The Salthawks had nothing to show but misery on the gridiron.

Dreiling inherited a program that had lost 28 consecutive games and was winless in every district football game it had played from 1990 to 1996.

In his first three years at Hutch, he was 0-3 against Meadows, losing games by a combined margin of 117-19.

As everyone remembers, Meadows was summarily sent out of town due to the discovery of the coach's use of DMSO (Dimethyl sulfoxide), a horse linament that worked on sprained ankles, or sprained shoulders, or whatever, to help alleviate the pain. But in doing so, Meadows was allegedly in violation of USD 457 policies regarding administering medication.

So barely two months after guiding the Buffs to their only state football championship in November 1999, Meadows was forced to resign his position and left for eastern Texas. He left as the winningest coach in GCHS history (87-39, .719) over his 12-year stint at the helm.

Forward to October 2000, and the Buffs and Salthawks had their next meeting with Jim Mireles, now principal at GCHS, as the head coach to match wits with Dreiling.

Hutchinson won that game, 28-7, and every meeting since, the Salthawks have been on the winning side of the coin against the Buffs. That's a perfect 10-0 for Dreiling against four coaches and his team, which since 2004, has won seven state championships.

Why has the Hutchinson program been so good, and why was the Buffs' program stuck in mediocrity for nearly a decade before Brian Hill was named head coach in 2010. In his three-plus seasons, Hill's squads are 21-15, have made two 6A playoff appearances, winning one of the three games.

Tonight's game is one of those potential "signature" wins that would move the Buffs to the next level. Hill understands that all too well.

"Last year (56-14 loss at Hutch) was the first time we'd played them for these kids to have that kind of experience," Hill said of the first meeting between the schools since 2007. "You have to understand what you expect and what you get from playing a team the caliber of Hutchinson."

Hill praised Dreiling for understanding the depth it takes to build a program from the ground floor up.

In Hutch, for example, Dreiling's program begins at the first-grade level and is ingrained in every class all the way to becoming a high school Salthawk. It was that 2000 game where Dreiling's first fifth-grade class were seniors that they finally broke through to beat a program that Dreiling himself was trying to emulate. The winning program that Meadows, despite the cloud that hung over his final months, had built since arriving in Garden in 1988.

"Prior to my arriving in Hutch, kids below the fifth grade didn't play football in the fall," Dreiling said. "They played other sports. Today, the young kids can identify with the Salthawks. They run our base plays, have the same numbering system, nearly all the things that we do at the high school level."

Dreiling said they run two summer camps for the youth teams and coaches, and one of his freshman coaches is in charge of the second-grade team.

"You get things rolling early and it just makes things easier later," Dreiling said of having the program in his hands from the beginning. "We hired a coach from Iowa to handle our middle school teams, and they run our stuff meticulously. They go 5-2, 4-1, and almost always have a good team."

Scott City coach Glenn O'Neil echoed Dreiling's sentiments when asked about his program that has been hugely successful for the Class 3A Beavers. Even in what was to have been a rebuilding year, the Beavers, who won the 3A state title last November, are 6-1 and in line to win their district to advance to the state playoffs once again.

"We start working with the kids in the third to sixth grades and try to work on offensive and defensive fundamentals," O'Neil said. "A lot of it is set up around the Garden City YMCA league, but we don't have any say so as to what they do down there. So we try to talk to the coaches and express that we have a certain way we'd like the fundamentals to be taught."

In essence, O'Neil readily agreed that he and his staff don't have a lot of input until they get to the eighth grade level, even saying in the seventh grade that Scott City coaches have their own system.

"Our eighth-grade coach uses our terminology and uses most of our schemes," O'Neil said. "So by the time they get here as freshmen, they're familiar with what we do. It's a big help, but it could even be better if we got them started earlier doing what we do."

Therein lies the challenge for Hill. Only down to the middle school at both Horace Good and Kenneth Henderson does Hill have any input. And he'd like to see that change.

"Everyone would like to have the success Hutchinson has had," Hill said of a program that has gone 38-2 in district games since 2000. "Everyone uses their model. The team camps that Randy took his teams to was before anybody else went to team camps. The way they lift weights people copy his offense. It's the greatest form of flattery. He puts his kids in the best position to win."

Hill said the signature wins to date for the Buffs since he became the head coach were the two road wins at Hays when the Indians were unbeaten and ranked in Class 5A, along with the two-overtime win two years ago against Dodge City in the Hatchet Game.

"Those are wins that have us competing for the top spot in our league," Hill said. "But for us to compete at the state level, move deep into the playoffs, we need a signature win against a Hutchinson. That's what we need to do to get to the next level."

In essence, that means Hill and his staff must have the long-range support of the school's administration, school board and community. Everyone needs to buy in and let Hill and his coaches run the program and run it their way. Garden City's football program needs to regain the attitude and hard-nosed football philosophy that a Dave Meadows produced. Hill and his staff are doing it the right way, but they can and want to do more.

As Dreiling said from his early years at Hutchinson, "you have to have the community support and a community that cares. They have to be excited about what you're doing."

One thing will be for certain in tonight's game Hutchinson will come to play, and play hard, the entire game. It will take a monumental effort by the Buffs to contend and have a chance for an upset of the Salthawks. It would only be appropriate if a large crowd was on hand to witness what would be a signature moment for the GCHS football program.

Sports Editor Brett Marshall can be emailed at bmarshall@gctelegram.com