Garden City, KS-In 2016, Garden City High School football made history by completing the first unblemished regular season in 25 years. But unlike Dave Meadows squad in 1991, the Buffaloes failed to reach the championship game, losing to Lawrence Free State in the second round of the 6A playoffs.
“It still stings,” Garden City Head Coach Brian Hill said. “It’s not something you can forget, and I know it will motivate this year’s team.”
Still, the Buffaloes enjoyed a season for the ages, which included a school-best 27-point comeback win in week six vs. Wichita Northwest and a thrilling overtime victory over Great Bend two weeks later that cemented the program’s first outright Western Athletic Conference title since 2013.
“Last year’s team was so experienced; they had plenty of game reps going into the opener,” Hill said.
That will not be the case this season. The Buffaloes lost nearly all of their skill players on offense. Gone are quarterback Jesse Nunez (Garden City Community College), running back Peyton Hill (Ft. Hays State) and wide receiver Jason Yi, who remarkably came back from a career-threatening neck injury the year before to post his best statistical season with the Buffaloes.
“People have to understand that that team was built over three years,” Hill said.
Nunez was a three-year starter who passed Richard Delarosa for third on school’s all-time rushing yards list. Last season, he threw for nearly 1,200 yards and ran for 1,367. He tied Greyson Tempel’s single-season rushing touchdown mark with 20, which included a five td game vs. Liberal in week five.
On the opening day of fall practice on Monday, Hill handed the keys to senior Garrett Doll, who served as Nunez’s backup the past couple of seasons while helping out in Dominic Dingle’s defensive backfield.
“You can make a comparison to the team a couple of years ago when Jesse was a sophomore,” Hill said. “But the biggest difference is that Garrett is a senior now.”
Nunez will go down as one of the most dynamic weapons in GCHS history. But Doll’s arm could significantly open up the passing game for the first time since 2013, when Tempel set the school mark with 2,535 yards through the air.
“Jesse’s biggest strength was his legs,” Hill said. “Garrett’s biggest strength is his ability to throw the football. I believe he will make some mistakes because he can make a lot of the throws. But we expect that.”
Nunez’s passing significantly improved his junior season when former University of Kansas quarterback and wide receiver Kale Pick (now Head Coach at Fort Scott Community College) was his qb coach. This season, the air game will get some major help from Cody Bernbeck, who was Hill’s quarterback back in 2010.
“He (Berneck) has helped me out a ton,” Doll said on Monday. “He knows what Coach Hill wants from me.”
While Doll takes over the quarterback spot, Quinto Lapointe, who filled in a couple of games last season when (Peyton) Hill was hurt, takes over at running back.
“Quinton showed last year when Peyton was hurt that he could make plays,” Hill said.
But the glue that will hold everything together will be senior Demarcus Elliott, who will play on both the offensive and defensive lines. The all-state player recorded 44 tackles including 15 for loss in 2016. He also helped pave the way for one of the most successful rushing seasons in recent memory.
“It’s surprising that Demarcus doesn’t have a Division-I offer yet,” Hill said. “But that will come.”
On defense, the Buffaloes lost linebacker Zeke Herrera, who may go down as one of the best players at that position in program history. He finished last season with 106 tackles. They do however return five starters: Elliott, defensive end Jasper Partin, along with defensive backs David Arteaga, Tye Davis and Lapointe.
Arteaga was second on the team with two interceptions behind Lapointe and Herrera.
“I expect our defense to be really good,” Hill said. “Obviously it’s hard to replace guys like Zeke. But we have a pretty talented class coming through now as well.”
Garden City will practice again on Tuesday with the first full-contact practice coming up on Friday. They open the regular season on Friday, Sept. 1 at Wichita East.