Experience will be key for Buffaloes’ football success
17 starters return from 2020 team
In his first eight seasons as the head football coach at Garden City High School, Brian Hill’s teams suffered just one losing season. During that stretch of 2010 to 2017, the Buffs have reached the Class 6A state playoff semifinals once (2013) and quarterfinals another year (2017).
During the last three seasons, however, the Buffs struggled with small groups of senior players, forcing Hill and his staff to insert young and inexperienced players into key starting positions.
With the 2021 season just now days away with the Sept. 3 home opener against Manhattan, Hill is looking forward to seeing how this edition of the Buffs stacks up with some of his better squads. That’s because he welcomes back 17 starters from a team that finished 3-6 overall. The Buffs did, however, win two of their final three games and also brought home the Hatchet with a 14-8 road win at Dodge City.
The 2020 season was almost a campaign of what-ifs. Turnovers, penalties and other occurrences caused by lack of experience saw the Buffs lose two games by a single point, including the Week 9 Play-In setback (21-20) to Manhattan. They lost two other games due to turnovers. The defense yielded just a little more than 18 points per game, but take away the 56-0 loss at Wichita-Kapaun Mt. Carmel, and it was just 13.3 points per game yielded.
Hill, who is now 60-46 overall (.566), has compiled a 28-16 record in the Western Athletic Conference, and has been named WAC Coach of the Year four times (2011-13-16-17) and also has been the head coach of the West Kansas Shrine Bowl team (2012). The Buffs claimed WAC titles in 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2017 and have made the 6A state playoffs six times.
“The biggest keys to our success this season will be to stay healthy,” Hill said. “We’ve got more experience across the board on both offense and defense than we have in several years. We need to create more explosive plays on offense and take care of the ball better.”
That was never more evident in the 2020 campaign when the Buffs finished with a minus-10 turnover margin, including four in a 20-6 loss to Liberal.
“We need to take the next step of dominating a game on defense and creating more turnovers,” Hill said. “Our kicking game needs to be more consistent as well, considering we lost two games by just one point due to mistakes in the kicking game.”
If there was a bright spot in the 2020 season, it was the defense and Hill welcomes back nine of 11 starters, including WAC leading tackler Joel Bellows (5-11, 185-lb., Sr., Linebacker). Bellows compiled 99 tackles, including 10 for losses, intercepted 2 passes and had one blocked punt to his credit.
Three of the four down lineman also return on defense, including second-team all-WAC Terrell Elliott (6-1, 275, Sr.). Elliott is garnering some D-I and D-11 consideration, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Demarcus, now the starting nose tackle at the University of Indiana. Elliott registered 34 tackles, four of those for losses in his junior campaign. Also returning are seniors Saul Perez (5-10, 250), who had 48 tackles (3 for losses), and Xavier Soriano (6-1, 210), who had 44 tackles (7 for losses and 1 sack).
Joining Bellows in the middle of the defense will be senior Sergio Garcia (5-8, 180) who accounted for 24 tackles and one sack his junior year.
While Hill considers the defense to overall be the team’s strength at the outset of the season, it will be the secondary that brings the most experience back. Two seniors and two juniors started a year ago and senior Cooper Ramsey (6-4, 205) and junior Caleb Wiese (6-4, 200) earned first team all-WAC honors. Wiese had 68 tackles, two tackles for losses and two interceptions. Ramsey had 37 tackles, 10 for losses.
Joining those two in the secondary are senior Micah Perez (5-8, 170), with 31 tackles, 1 for a loss, and junior Ryan Heiman (5-8, 150), who had 35 tackles, three interceptions and one tackle for a loss.
On the offensive side of the ball, three lineman return as starters. Those include Kelvin Rico (5-9, 275, Sr.), Kaden Whitehurst (6-1, 230, Sr.) and Michael Camarena (5-9, 265). Whitehurst earned second team all-WAC honors.
Wiese, who played both sides of the ball his sophomore season, was the WAC’s passing leader in 2020 with 831 yards coming off 47-of-109 passes, with five touchdown passes and six interceptions.
Showing versatility, Ramsey was also a starter at wide receiver, hauling in 10 passes for 157 yards and scoring one touchdown. Senior Caleb Metzen (6-2, 185) caught 15 passes for 224 yards and one TD. Junior Colin Kleystueber (5-10, 170) started five games at the running back spot while Jerry Arteaga moves from wide receiver (6-2, 180, Jr.) to running back this year. Arteaga, likely the fastest player on the team, caught 7 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns and had just 9 carries for 108 yards, averaging more than 10 yards per touch.
All in all, the Buffs return 30 letter winners. They also return all four of their specialists in long snapper Collin Smith (5-8 175, Sr.), placekicker Issac Rivera (5-9, 150, Jr.) and Heiman as the punter, punt and kickoff returner.
The Buffaloes open the season Friday, hosting Manhattan at 7 p.m. in Buffalo Stadium.