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Garden City, KS (westernkansasnews.com)-Rarely does one loss define a program’s history. But on one fall night last November, Garden City’s powerful tradition was tested unlike it had ever been before.
After trailing then 12th-ranked Coffeyville 24-21 in the second quarter, the Red Ravens scored 60 unanswered points, handing Garden City one of their worst losses in program history and sending Head Coach Matt Miller to the unemployment line.
One month later, Jeff Sims was hired to replace Miller, and his first statement was something that never truly resonated with the handful of people that attended his opening press conference.
“I’m excited to be here, but there are a lot of challenges this program is facing,” Sims said. “It won’t be easy.”
It was hard to fathom the program struggling following a dramatic opening-week victory over Highland. But then a school-record seven straight losses followed, and a promising start seemed like a distant memory.
“We basically started a football program,” Sims said. “That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. There were less than 30 guys on the team when I got here.”
As bleak as things looked a month ago is just how promising the future appears after a 2-1 finish.
And even in defeat, Saturday’s season finale at home against Coffeyville proved just how far the Broncbuster program has come over the last 12 months.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Sims said following a 42-33 loss to the Red Ravens at Broncbuster Stadium. “We kept fighting. I can honestly say that in all the years I’ve been coaching, this is the one time I am truly said to see the season end because we were just getting there. We were starting to figure things out.”
Trailing by two scores after Coffeyville backup quarter Cole Murphy, who was filling in for injured starter Riley Ferguson, threw his second touchdown pass to Alfonso Onunwor that made it 42-27 with 5:53 remaining, the Broncbusters could have easily folded the tent. Instead Todd Porter directed a five-play, 64-yard drive that resulted in a 16-yard touchdown pass to Ben Phillips. After connecting on the extra point, Garden City trailed by eight.
Then the penalty flag that changed the game.
On the point-after try, Coffeyville (8-3, 4-3) was called for offsides. Initially Garden City (3-8, 2-5) appeared to decline it. But after second thought, Sims accepted the infraction, which moved the ball inside the 2-yard line.
“We needed a two-point conversion and an extra point to tie the game,” Sims said afterwards. “The two-pointer is the harder of the two to get, and once we had a chance to be closer, I figured it to be a no brainer.”
With the offense back on the field, the Broncbusters lined up in the power “I” to go for two. But Lonnie Johnson was stopped a half yard shy of the goal line, and Garden City trailed 42-33 with 4:39 to go.
When asked about taking the one point they already had on the board off to go for two, Sims was confident in his response:
“I would do it 100 times over,” he said. “But that’s not what lost this game. Not being able to run the football was our biggest problem. But it’s something that will improve next season; I can guarantee you that.”
It wasn’t the only time that Garden City suffered a setback on a short-yardage situation.
Leading 7-0 early in the second quarter, the Broncbusters were facing a fourth-and-1 at their own 20. Rather than punt the football away, Sims left his offense on the field to go for it. But Bentley Easley tackled Porter for no gain, giving the Red Ravens the ball in the red zone.
“In this league, if you can’t run the football, you’re not going to win many games,” Sims said. “If you can’t convert on fourth-and-short, you’re not going to win regardless.”
That decision proved costly as Coffeyville tied the game three plays later when Murphy dove in from one yard out.
Then the avalanche.
Back-to-back turnovers: Toyous Avery’s juggling interception followed by Steven Montac’s strip of wide receiver Jeff Thomas resulted in a quick 14-point swing. Onunwor scored on both takeaways: a two-yard rushing touchdown and a nine-yard scamper that gave the Red Ravens a 21-7 cushion with 4:35 left in the half.
But Garden City never bowed out, and on the first play of their next series, Porter, the reigning Jayhawk Conference offensive player of the week, hit Phillips in stride for a 65-yard gain down to the Coffeyville 2-yard line. That setup Porter’s two-yard sneak off the left side that pulled the Broncbusters to within eight (Kevin Olney missed the extra point) with 3:58 left in the first half.
“We fought every step of the way,” Sims said. “Our team showed so much progress from the beginning part of the season to now.”
After Coffeyville extended the lead following a 10-play, 69-yard march that ended with Murphy’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Onunwor, Delshawn Phillips blocked the extra point, only to have Trevor Neloms pick up the loose ball and push his away across the goal line for two.
That in a nutshell, epitomized Garden City’s rollercoaster season.
So did the ensuing kickoff, when Jonathan Cook raced 93-yards for a touchdown. Porter added the two-point conversion and the Broncbusters trailed 29-21 at the half.
“We had a lot of different chances to win this game,” Sims said. “But we just came up short.”
As good as Garden City’s defense has been all season long, their special teams has lacked at times. That was evident in their week-two loss to Dodge City, when after taking a 28-14 lead, they gave up a 90-yard kickoff return for a score.
At the beginning of the third quarter Saturday, it was de ja vu all over again. Terry Wright took Olney’s end-over-end kick and raced 82 yards right up the middle for a Red-Ravens touchdown.
“There were so many things that changed this game,” Sims said. “But we still had our chances.”
After playing to a stalemate for the rest of the third quarter, the Broncbusters pulled closer early in the fourth when Porter found Ben Phillips on a post pattern on fourth-down for a 14-yard score. Porter was stuffed on the two-point try and Garden City trailed 36-27 with 13:10 to go.
“Our guys believed in the process at the end of the season,” Sims said. “That’s a very good sign. Now it’s our job to keep building this thing moving forward.”
Porter got Garden City on the board first with a one-yard rushing touchdown that finished off a 13-play, 67-yard opening drive that saw the Broncbusters convert a third-down-and-15 to keep the march alive.
Porter finished 22-of-37 for 308 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. He also ran it 28 times for 95 yards and two scores. Phillips added 10 catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns. It was the second straight 10-catch performance for the freshman receiver.
Murphy completed 21-of-36 passes for 324 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. One of those turnovers came in the red zone when the Red Ravens were driving for the equalizer. But on third-and-4 from the Garden City 9, Cook undercut a pass that was intended for Onunwor and picked it off in the end zone.
Onunwor had the last laugh, catching six balls for 78 yards and two touchdowns while running for 30 yards on seven carries and two scores.
Notes: The best sequence of plays during the game might have come in the first quarter, when the Broncbusters stuffed the Red Ravens on four straight plays inside the 1-yard line…Not including 2013 because of forfeits, Garden City finished 3-8; their worst on-field win-loss record since 2011 when they went 2-7 (It’s the third time in the last six years Garden City won three games or fewer in a season)…Coffeyville has now beaten the Broncbusters seven straight times and three consecutive in Garden City…Coffeyville played without star quarterback Riley Ferguson, who broke his collarbone five minutes into last week’s loss vs. Dodge City…Garden City turned the ball over twice; a major improvement from last year’s nine-turnover debacle at Veterans Memorial Stadium in the season finale…Garden City completed their third straight losing season (6 out of their last 7)…Coffeyville ran 16 more plays than Garden City (85-69) and had four more first downs (25-21)…Coffeyville came into the game as the nation’s fifth most penalized program; they had only seven for 38 yards on Saturday…Red Ravens made their living on third down converting 9-of-17 (Garden City was just 4-of-12)…The 514 yards allowed to Coffeyville was the second most given up this season (high was 588 yielded to Hutchinson)