By CONOR NICHOLL
Garden City football opened 1-3 in the first month of 2020. The Buffs statistically struggled on offense, a trend from ’18-20. In that stretch, GC averaged 12 points a game, 2.9 yards per carry, and 3.7 yards a play. The Buffs ran the ball on 70 percent of plays.
In the last few weeks of 2020, GC installed some flexbone concepts, a run-heavy look popularized by St. Thomas Aquinas and Hutchinson. GC finished the year with a 3-6 mark.
The Buffs again had a top-10 Class 6A scoring defense, though were in the bottom tier offensively. Garden City ran the ball more in the final five games, and significantly upped its yards per carry and total offense. The Buffs averaged 17.4 points a contest for the year.
In the offseason, 12th-year coach Brian Hill, who has spent more than 20 years in Garden City coaching either junior college or high school, evaluated his team. Hill spoke with his staff. They believed the flexbone “really kind of fit” the Buffs’ personnel. In the middle of December through summertime, GC researched the flexbone and talked with various coaches.
Hill especially communicated with Bethel College head coach Terry Harrison, who has orchestrated a big turnaround with the Threshers in the triple option flexbone. In ’19, Bethel finished in the NAIA top-25 for the first time in 11 years. Bethel led NAIA in rushing that fall.
This season, the Swedes are 3-1 and ranked No. 17 nationally. Hill and Harrison have been coaching friends for a long time. This summer, Harrison and his offensive staff came to Garden City in a one-week camp to help the Buffs install the flexbone.
The change has helped an experienced Garden City squad open 3-1. The Buffs, one of 6A’s biggest turnarounds after the first month, have seen pronounced offensive changes compared to the first month of 2020.
“It also helped kind of sell it to our kids,” Hill told SIK on Tuesday night. “Hearing it from a college coach. Our kids just really have grasped the concepts really quickly, and really bought into what is going on, and it’s been a lot of fun to watch them grow doing it.”
Garden City has averaged 23.8 points per game, along with 4.5 yards per carry and 5.5 yards per play. The Buffs have delivered 247 yards a game and ran on 89 percent of plays. GC has rushed for 722 yards, third-best in the Western Athletic Conference, per Hays High broadcaster/conference statistician Dustin Armbruster.
“They are playing faster, they are playing with more confidence,” Hill said. “And they feel like no matter what a defense tries to do to us, that they are prepared to do it.”
Garden City opened with a 21-6 loss to Manhattan, currently undefeated and ranked fifth in Class 6A in the KPreps rankings. Last year, GC lost by one point to Hutchinson in Week 2. This season, the Buffs defeated the Salthawks, 13-7, in overtime. In Week 3, Garden City beat Wichita West, 49-0.
“Our kids have really taken to it,” Hill said.
Last week, GC delivered a signature road win, 27-21, in the conference opener at Hays High in Lewis Field Stadium. The Buffs had a pair of 15-play drives and a 96-yard pass from quarterback Caleb Wiese to Jerry Arteaga. That tied the longest TD pass in school history. On Thursday, Wiese earned the team’s offensive player of the week honor. Xavier Soriano picked up the defensive award, and Carl Bors on special teams. This week, GC is home against Liberal.
“Some of the things that we got out of it was how simple it can be for our kids,” Hill said of learning the flexbone from Bethel. “I think in today’s football, that a lot of offensive coordinators and probably even including myself over the last few years, there’s a lot of plays that work really well on paper. But your kids to execute it against different fronts and different coverages and finding the time to practice and to get your kids to completely understand the concepts can take a long, long time.”
Junior Colin Kleysteuber leads with 76 carries for 377 yards and six scores. Wiese has 232 passing yards with two TDs against two interceptions. Arteaga leads with five catches for 168 yards and a TD. Hill said the offensive execution has improved each week.
Senior Kaden Whitehurst (6-2, 260) is the offensive line leader, especially with his vocal nature and attitude. Seniors Kelvin Rico and Michael Camarena are both 5-8, 275 and are experienced stalwarts. Sophomore center Sebastian Lopez (6-2, 285) has an extremely high ceiling and could be one of Kansas’ top players for his class. Lopez earned third place in 6A at 285 pounds last winter in wrestling and picked up national All-American wrestling accolades at Fargo this summer.
“He is a kid that is beyond his sophomore year,” Hill said.
Defensively, GC has a host of returners, including Joel Bellows and Terrell Elliott, both former all-league selections. Elliott has Division I offers. They have combined for 55 tackles, five for loss. Senior Sergio Garcia leads with 36 stops.
“One of the things that attracted me to the flexbone was the simplicity of it,” Hill said. “…They are playing faster, they are playing more confidence.”
Editor’s Note: In addition to Conor Nicholl’s interview with Coach Hill for this story, SIK’s Bethany Bowman completed a Zoom interview with Coach Hill that is available on SIK’s Facebook page. Plus, check out more on GC’s OL, defense and turnaround in the coming days on SIK platforms.