It didn’t matter what was happening in Wichita. The point-differential between Garden City High School and Hutchinson didn’t matter.
All that mattered was getting an extra point through the uprights, and sending Friday’s Hatchet Game at Buffalo Stadium to overtime against bitter rival Dodge City.
The Buffs, after trailing for much of the second half, had just scored to pull within that extra point of tying the game. The kick never made it past the line of scrimmage as the Demons broke through the middle and blocked it for a stunning 21-20 win.
Two kneels later, the Red Demons were lifting The Hatchet, the WAC championship and sent the Buffs — 7-2 overall and 1-2 in the district — home for the off-season as they lose the point tiebreaker (plus-2 to minus-6) to Hutchinson, which lost 28-21 at Wichita Northwest on Friday.
“It feels terrible,” junior linebacker and place kicker Zeke Herrera, whose first extra-point attempt missed before having the final one blocked, said after the Buffs’ first loss to their rivals since 2012. “Coming out of so many wins (seven to begin the season), and come out here and lose to a team I knew we could have beat, I feel like I failed my team. I should have been a little bit tougher with myself. I don’t know.”
The Red Demons came into the game 0-2 in district after blowout 19- and 38-point losses to Wichita Northwest and Hutchinson, respectively. Their defense had given up a combined 124 points in the two setbacks, eliminating the Demons from postseason contention early.
But on Friday night, the Dodge City defense stepped up, holding the Buffs to their second-lowest offensive output of the season, and just 314 yards — 121 rushing.
“They were daring us to throw it. And the course of the game in the second half, we’re playing from behind, we were trying to pick up chunks of yards,” Hill said. “So, we were forced to the air. We showed we could do it, it just keeps coming back to the one thing, trying to keep them out on the extra point.”
Trailing 21-14 for almost the entire fourth quarter, the Buffs had one last chance to tie the game with the ball at their own 47 and two minutes remaining. Jesse Nunez, who finished with 193 passing yards on 12-of-25 passes, hit Gabe Otero and then Quinton LaPointe for a combined 25 yards. Then, the Buffs were helped out by a controversial pass interference at the goal line that gave the Buffs another first down and the ball at the Dodge 11.
Two incompletions and a 5-yard penalty on Dodge later, Nunez was able to carry the ball to the 1 with a minute to play. Nunez snuck it in from there and the game seemed destined to head to overtime. Both coaches had already begun to prepare for an overtime period.
“I was trying to work up the plays that I knew we would be running,” GCHS head coach Brian Hill said. “Got 10 yards to go, and it’s something we thought we would be doing. But, it just shows you, you’ve got to execute on every single snap. You never know what that one play is going to be the difference in the ball game.”
That one play was the one that put the Buffs’ stellar season into exile for another year. If Garden City had made the extra point and won in overtime, they would have made the playoffs.
“It’s just a tough pill to swallow, with these seniors,” Hill said. “They’ve been through a lot. They’ve done a lot of great things here in four years. For it to come down to a missed extra point, it’s a tough pill to swallow.”
The other side of the stunning disappointment for Garden City was the surprise euphoria on the Dodge City sideline.
“Couldn’t believe it,” Dodge City head coach David Foster said. “I don’t know if we’ve blocked an extra point all year.
“You win the WAC and get the Hatchet, there’s not a lot more you can ask for other than playoff.”
The Buffs are left lamenting what could have been, if not for a penalty here or a fumble there.
They lost two fumbles Friday night — the Demons had no turnovers — the latter of which Dodge took advantage on a 28-yard strike from Caden Walters to Eric Reid, on the first play after the Buffs turned it over at their own 28.
“Those things are on us,” Nunez said. “Big games, you can’t have that kind of stuff happen.”
Walters was just 10-of-20 passing for 112 yards, but he had those two touchdown passes to Reid, who had 24 rushing yards, 69 receiving and all three Demons’ touchdowns.
Reid got a rushing touchdown to cap a drive where the Red Demons mixed in a wildcat formation with Reid at quarterback, resulting in a six-minute, 60-yard touchdown drive on 11 plays — nine runs — that culminated in a 4-yard power run by Reid to give the Demons the 14-6 lead.
It was a similar offensive formation that Northwest ran effectively in the 38-21 victory over the Buffs the week before.
The Buffs immediately answered, though, scoring on 4th-and-18 from the Demons’ 23 on a pass from Nunez to Patrick Clifford in the back of the end zone. A two-point-conversion on a pop pass from Nunez to DeMarcus Elliot knotted the score at 14.
But the Demons pulled back ahead, 21-14, on another long drive, this time 65 yards on eight plays, with Walters’ 6-yard pass to Reid capping the march and setting up the late-game dramatics.
“We were our own worst enemy,” Hill said. “We gave them every opportunity to do the things that they did, and that’s what we felt like would be the only way they would get after us, was by us giving them more possessions and more opportunities. And, unfortunately, that’s what we did.”
Playoff notes: Wichita Northwest will host 1-8 Wichita North while Hutchinson (6-3) travels to 9-0 Junction City.
This is the final year of district playoffs for Class 6A and 5A schools. Next year, all teams play an 8-game regular season schedule and then the 16 teams in the West will be seeded and bracketed. Thus, this will be the last year for 7-2 teams to be sitting at home.