Leading up to the 1999 season, Garden City High School football players walked into a locker room and weight room papered with newspaper clippings documenting their loss at last year’s Kansas state championship game to Olathe North.

The game had been a close one at 41-37, a near miss that then-defense starter Stephen Ramsey called “absolutely devastating.” With the clippings, coaches didn’t want the team to forget that feeling, Ramsey said. And players took the lesson to heart.

Within a few months, that 1999 team won the state championship, an achievement no GCHS team has seen before or since. And Friday, at a new stadium overlooking a new high school, about 20 of the team’s players and coaches took the field again, briefly reuniting to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their victory.

This winter, on Dec. 31, the team and Meadows will be among the first inductees into the new Garden City High School Athletics Hall of Fame.

The 20-year reunion was a chance to show out-of-town players a continuously growing Garden City, said current GCHS football coach Brian Hill, and to give them a chance to catch up and remember their roots. And beyond that, he said, it was a chance for locals to remember a game that, above all, “showed people that we belong.”

1999

When Coach Dave Meadows came to Garden City in 1988, the team was struggling. In the 13 years before his arrival, the school had won only 16 of 107 games and saw only one winning season. No one saw them as a threat, Meadows said.

“But what I found was a group of guys who were as good of athletes as any other town in Kansas. There was a level of toughness just because they’re western Kansas kids. Several of them were rodeo guys. They were embarrassed that the records had not reflected winning seasons, and they wanted to win,” Meadows said.

Over the next 11 years, GCHS played 11 winning seasons, becoming a 6A state semifinalist in 1997 and state runners-up in 1990, 1991 and 1998. All high school football teams are special, Meadows said, but the GCHS team on the tail end of the millennia had a deep level of commitment to each other and to the team. In 1999, bitter with the taste of near-victory, Garden City was emboldened by Meadows’ motto for the year: “Finish the job.”

Team members Jerell Pfannenstiel, the 1999 sophomore quarterback, and Stephen Ramsey, a junior defense starter, remember that year in stark detail — it’s a season that has stayed with them for years.

Training took immense effort, Ramsey said, but it never felt like a sacrifice. The team wanted to win, and that’s what it took. The team was a tight-knit one, Pfannenstiel said. At the end of long practices, they would stay together in the locker room talking, no one in a rush to leave.

With three wins and three losses, the 1999 season itself had actually not been the team’s best, Meadows said. And the championship win was far from a sure thing. The team’s opponent, Olathe South, was a powerhouse on offense, raking in dozens of points a game. Garden City was known for its defense, a scrappy, hardnose team that fought back, said Pfannenstiel.

“You get knocked down, you get back up, you go at it again. Never give up. You’re going to get hit, might as well hit them harder,” Pfannenstiel said.

Meadows said the game was hard-fought. GCHS players remembered a last-minute loss in 1998 and were not going to let it happen again. But in the final moments before the buzzer, when it was clear the team would win, Pfannenstiel said he remembers small celebrations. Moments of “pure joy and excitement and energy” as the players huddled before a final quarter play. Seeing fans in the stand and students section ready to rush the field. It still gives him chills, he said.

Garden City rallied around the team that year, selling out stadiums at home games and filling the stands at the championship game in Wichita, Meadows said. That support was infectious and it mattered.

“There was great pride and just a feeling of ‘Way to go, guys.’ People in town felt like they had something to do with it and they did,” Meadows said.

When the team officially won, he said there was a “great joyous feeling” encompassed by a “big sigh of relief.”

“It’s one thing to know that you can do it ... It’s another thing to do it,” said Meadows.

The players, however, were beside themselves, Ramsey said. They stood together on the field until the stadium lights went dark.

2019

Today, some players from 1999 still keep in touch, Ramsey said, bonded by the championship experience. Even today, he said the victory is monumental, a builder of relationships and key moment in his life.

“It’s something that I’m very proud of … It’s kept all of us together. We’ve all moved away and done our own things, but it is absolutely the biggest point in our lives besides having kids,” Ramsey said.

There were life lessons in the win, he said. It taught him and his teammates to work hard towards a goal and has made him a better teacher and role model for his children, two of which are on the GCHS football team now.

And, Pfannenstiel said, it was a reflection on Garden City. As the rural school faced off a Kansas City-area rival, it showed eastern Kansas, and Kansas as a whole, that Garden City was hard-working and not to be underestimated. It put the city on the map.

Twenty years later, Meadows said he was simply excited to see everyone again, to find out what lives the once-teenagers found. And, he said, it’s a worthwhile reminder to the community. Garden City won big before — why not do it again?

On Friday, a huddle of 1999 players came together at halftime, a respite in the middle of a blustery, soon-to-be-rainy Hatchet Game against Dodge City. They stood shoulder to shoulder behind their championship trophy, hands in pockets, looking to each other and to the stands with smiles.

Because, on top of everything, their presence that night was proof that something that defined them as teenagers still mattered to the community they played for.

“It’s one of the best things that’s happened in my life. It’s a public thing. It was celebrated throughout the whole town. And I was a part of it,” Ramsey said.

“You know what? They haven’t forgotten us.”

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.