Nobody could accuse Garden City High School football coach Brian Hill of dodging any bullets when evaluating the 2019 season schedule.
Take the season-opening match-up against Derby, the preseason No. 1-ranked Class 6A squad which also is the defending state champion. The Panthers have won four state crowns during the past decade under coach Brandon Clark.
Hill, though, sees the opening matchup as an opportunity to measure the improvement his squad has made after struggling to a 2-7 record in 2018, the fewest wins in Hill’s previous nine seasons at the helm. It was only the second losing mark during Hill’s tenure.
“The learning curve for us this year is much less with the number of players returning,” Hill said a week prior to the season opener on Sept. 6, which will be Military Appreciation Night for the 7 p.m. kickoff at Buffalo Stadium. “We had so many new faces last year and it was difficult to get a lot of new stuff in, and so far this year the kids have handled it well and we’re much further along.”
Hill said the 2-7 mark, along with a 4-5 mark in 2014, should be blips on the program’s seasons and sees opportunities to rebuild and put the Buffs back to where they were in 2013 (8-4), 2015 (7-2), 2016 (9-1) and 2017 (8-3). He’s now 55-33 for a .625 winning percentage and ranks third all-time in wins, trailing only Dave Meadows (87) and John Dickerson (77).
Hill is counting on senior Carlos Acosta to be the sparkplug for a rejuvenated offense after the 5-10, 180-pound now senior passed for 1,174 yards and 8 touchdowns (9 interceptions) and rushing for another 414 rushing yards. His 1,588 yards accounted for just more than 65 percent of the Buffs’ total offense.
“He’s now a seasoned and experienced quarterback, but the real key will be the improvement in our young offensive line,” Hill said. “We were starting a freshman and several sophomores last year and they’re now a year older with a lot more experience. The expectations are a lot of improvement.”
With six offensive starters back, Hill believes he has a solid corps to produce more points and take some pressure off a defense that seemingly self-destructed at times in 2018. Giving up big plays, both from scrimmage and special teams seemed to be part of the snakebit Buffs of a year ago.
“We can’t control what the other teams do, but we can control what we do,” Hill said. “Last year’s Derby game (opener on the road) went south in a hurry from the opening kickoff (return for a touchdown). But in the second half (trailing 42-0 at intermission), some things went well. That first week so many things went wrong. We can change that. We can execute better, we can do our individual assignments better but you can’t give up big plays and you can’t continue to have turnovers against good teams.”
The offensive line that Hill believes is much improved is comprised of senior Refugio Chairez (6-1, 300), juniors Garrick Wells (6-0, 300), and Trey Nuzum (6-4, 285). Nuzum will likely be a two-way starter as he did a year ago as a sophomore.
In addition to Nuzum on the defensive line, Hill welcomes back sophomores Terrell Elliott (6-0, 265) and Oscar Yanez (6-0, 275). Christian Reyes will anchor the secondary at his cornerback position after the 5-8, 145-pound junior got plenty of experience as a sophomore.
“We’re still playing with a lot of 15 and 16-year olds, playing against a bunch of 18-year-old bodies, so we’re still at a disadvantage with the maturity factor. But these kids have worked hard, and put in the work, so I see a lot of better things ahead.”
Reyes will also see double-duty as he will be playing the slotback position on offense and Hill also returns junior Lane Durst at wide receiver. Both Durst and Reyes caught 12 passes each last season.
In preparation for the regular-season opener, the Buffaloes were able to have their annual Football Friday Night in Garden City scrimmage, albeit a day late. Lightning and rain forced the Aug. 23 event, which has become an annual celebration of youth football in Garden. But Hill and his team took advantage of better weather on Saturday and made the best of it.
One new event for 2019, thanks to approval by the Kansas State High School Activities Association, was the inaugural Jamboree, where three teams can scrimmage against either, and that took place on Aug. 30 at Wichita Heights where former GCHS assistant Dominick Dingle is now the head coach of the Falcons. Joining the two teams was Maize High.
Each team gets four 9-play possessions and the event started at 5 p.m.
“We will get to see some new faces and formations and that will help us down the road,” Hill said of the new Jamboree format. “It’s a chance to dust off having to play ourselves, and I think the kids are excited to have this opportunity.”
The Buffs’ defense will also be on the field for 36 plays during the four quarters of the scripted scrimmage.
After the home season opener with Derby, the Buffs will hit the road to Valley Center in Week 2 (Sept. 13), then return home to face Hutchinson on Sept. 20 (Homecoming and Brown Out Night). Then it’s three weeks on the road at Hays (Sept. 27), Liberal (Oct. 4) and Wichita Northwest (Oct. 11, No. 2 5A ranked team), before returning home for the Oct. 18 Hatchet Game against rival Dodge City.
That also will serve as the reunion weekend for the 1999 Buffaloes’ Class 6A state championship team and coach Dave Meadows. Plans will include recognition during the game and a reception following the game, according to GCHS Athletics Director Drew Thon.
The regular-season finale on Oct. 25 is against Great Bend and then the first round play-in games for Class 6A playoffs will be on Nov. 1.
“The things I like most are the fact we have an experienced quarterback and most of the offensive line returning,” Hill said. “We’re a little green on the defensive line and linebacker, but for the most part these kids have talent. How long it takes for that to take hold, I just don’t know.”