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Panthers' trio earn WAC soccer honors
Sage Simon defends and passes the soccer ball into the midfield.jpg
Sage Simon defends and passes the soccer ball into the midfield. - photo by Hugo Gonzalez

Great Bend Panther Sage Simon earned first-team All-Western Conference soccer honors. Panthers Jazmin Calzada and Jillian Reimer earned second-team honors.

Great Bend (2-15, 0-8 WAC) defeated Hays Thomas More Prep 7-0 and 8-1 for their victories.


Garden City 6-1-1 13-3-1

Hays High 6-2 13-5

Dodge City 5-2-1 11-5-1

Liberal 2-6 6-11

Great Bend 0-8 2-14

GARDEN CITY (6-1-1, 13-3-1)–W *Liberal 3-1; W Buhler 3-0; W Goddard 1-0; L Andover 0-4; W *Great Bend 10-0; W TMP 10-0; TIE *Dodge City 1-1; L *Hays 1-4; W Great Bend 10-0; W *Dodge City 1-0; W Hays TMP 12-0; W Junction City 5-0; W *Liberal 3-1; W*Hays 1-0; W Free State 3-2 (OT): W Wichita North 2-1; L Manhattan 0-4

HAYS HIGH (6-2, 13-5)–W *Great Bend 10-0; W Augusta 9-1; L Valley Center 1-2 (OT); W Salina South 3-0; L *Dodge City 1-2 (OT); W *Liberal 9-0; W Junction City 9-0; W *Garden City 4-1; W Liberal 6-0; W *Great Bend 10-0; L Manhattan 2-5; W Wichita Collegiate 8-0; W *Dodge City 2-0; W TMP 13-0; L *Garden City 0-1; W Hutchinson 6-1; L Andover Central 0-1

DODGE CITY (5-2-1, 11-5-1)–W TMP 10-0; W Wichita East 5-3; L Wichita Northwest 0-3; L Maize 0-1; W *Hays 2-1 (OT); W Wichita South 10-0; W Wichita Heights 7-1; W *Great Bend 12-0; TIE *Garden City 1-1; W Liberal 4-1; W TMP 1-0; W *Great Bend 10-0; L *Garden City 0-1; L *Hays 0-2; W Circle 3-1; W *Liberal 2-0; L Manhattan 0-3

LIBERAL (2-6, 6-11)–L *Garden City 1-3; W Alva, Okla. 9-1; W Wichita Heights 3-2; L Wichita Southeast 1-2 (OT); L Campus 1-2 (T); L *Hays 0-9; L Guymon, Okla. 2-3; W *Great Bend 6-1; L *Dodge City 1-4; L *Hays 0-6; L Maize 0-2; W *Great Bend 7-0; Hays TMP 9-0; W Lamar, Colo. 2-0; L *Garden City 1-3; L *Dodge City 0-2; L Manhattan 0-10

GREAT BEND (0-8, 2-14)–L Wichita North 0-10; L *Hays 0-10; W Hays TMP 7-0; L *Garden City 0-10; L *Dodge City 0-12; L Liberal 1-6; L *Garden City 0-10; L Nickerson 2-3; 4-L *Hays 0-10; L *Liberal 0-7; L *Dodge City 0-10; W Hays TMP 8-1; L Wichita Southeast 0-8; L Manhattan 0-11; L Junction City 1-5; L Arkansas Cty 1-2


GARDEN CITY — Following the 2019 fall high school boys’ soccer season, Garden City High School hired Jose Vital as the new coach for both the boys’ and girls’ teams.

He would have the early months of off-season in the 2020 calendar to begin with his new group of girls in advance of the spring season.

Little did he know that his first spring would never arrive on the pitch as the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled all high school spring sports in Kansas.

His first team to be put on the field for the Lady Buffs came in 2021 and the team finished just above .500 at 9-8-0.

In Vital’s own words, “it was a rocky year as we were trying to implement a new system and then get acquainted with the girls.”

Over the next two seasons, however, things went upward with the team’s success, finishing 12-6-0 overall in 2022, co-winners of the Western Athletic Conference with Hays and then winning the 6A regional championship before falling to Manhattan in the state quarterfinals.

The just completed 2023 season saw the Lady Buffs inch just a little higher, claiming an outright WAC title by going 6-1-1 and repeating as regional champions before seeing their season end with a 4-0 loss at home to the same Manhattan squad in the state quarterfinals. Their record 13-3-1.

For Vital, who earned his second straight WAC Coach of the Year honor, the season saw many additional signs of growth, maturity and success despite not making it past the quarterfinal round.

“This team has evolved from the time our seniors were sophomores,” Vital said. “In 2021, I was an inexperienced coach and we had an inexperienced team. Their junior year, things picked up and we saw more confidence with more wins.”

Vital said he believes much of the team’s success is that it has not had just one star, either offensively or defensively or in the net, who has stood out. Take into account that senior Thania Flores, a defender, was selected as the WAC Player of the Year and one recognizes how that philosophy has worked for Vital.

“When you don’t have that one player who stands out, and you’re relying on everybody, the team is much better and everybody works toward the same goal,” Vital said. “I think what we accomplished in 2022 (beating Topeka High for the regional title) set the tone for our 2023 season.”

Often for teams in western Kansas it is all about convincing the athletes that they can compete with teams from Wichita or from eastern Kansas, Vital said.

“We tell the girls they are champions and they should go out and play like champions,” Vital said. “We try to play the best teams we can outside the WAC so that we are prepared for the playoffs.”

Vital described the 2023 season as a roller-coaster as the team dropped the championship game of the Goddard-Eisenhower tournament early in the year to Andover High by a 4-0 score.

They then had a 1-1 draw with Dodge City at home before a 4-1 setback at Hays in their first two WAC contests.

“All of a sudden, we’re 0-1-1 and perhaps not even going to be in the hunt for a WAC championship,” Vital said he recalled thinking at the time. “But we set our minds to beat Dodge City, Liberal and Hays at the end of the season and we were able to do that.”

In the second half of the WAC’s double round-robin schedule, the Lady Buffs first edged Dodge City on the road, 1-0; then defeated Liberal, 3-1, again on the road; and then eked out a 1-0 win over Hays at home to clinch the outright league title.

Their postseason run included a 3-2 overtime victory against Lawrence-Free State and a 2-1 victory over Wichita North, both come-from-behind wins, in the regional tournament. The comeback heroics, though, never materialized against Manhattan.

“They were the better team that day,” Vital said. “We’ll take things away from that loss and use them to prepare and plan for 2024 and come back even better.”

Of his 11 starters, Vital will return eight. And his underclassman back-up goalkeeper, Neira Calderon, played most of the second halves of matches this season.

“We’re fortunate that we have a generation of girls here who have a passion to play soccer,” Vital said. “They have an opportunity to do some exciting things so I’m looking forward to building on what we’ve already been able to do.”

Lady Buffs’ Flores defends the pitch to earn POY award

When Garden City High School senior soccer player Thania Flores heard from her coach, Jose Vital, that she had won an award from the Western Athletic Conference, she was both feeling pretty nice about it but also a little surprised.

“When you’re playing defense most of the time, you don’t expect a lot of recognition,” said Flores, who was voted by the WAC coaches as the 2023 Player of the Year for the spring girls’ soccer season. 

For part of the season, Vital would move Flores to a forward position to utilize her speed and effectiveness in putting pressure on the other team’s defense and goalkeeper.

“I was just happy to get the experience of playing forward,” Flores said. “It was always most important to be playing where the coach felt he needed me most and the position where I could help the team the most.”

Keys to good defensive play, Flores said, include communicating by telling teammates what is happening in your specific area. 

“You have to understand when to move and where to move depending on where the ball is,” Flores said. “Another important factor is learning how and when to either stab at the ball or step for the ball to get it away from the opponent.”

Flores, along with two of her senior teammates, were the anchors of the 2023 Lady Buffs as they won the WAC on the final regular season match with a 1-0 victory over Hays. That left her team with a 6-1-1 WAC record, one-half game ahead of Hays.

“Winning WAC was one of our big goals for the season,” Flores said. “We celebrated that win because it meant so much.”

When the regular season concluded the Lady Buffs prepared for their 6A regional and they won two dramatic comeback wins, 3-2 in double-overtime against Lawrence-Free State and 2-1 over Wichita North.

“Those were exciting and the regional championship was another goal we had set,” Flores said. 

The Buffs’ season came to an end with a quarterfinal loss to Manhattan, the same team that had ended Garden City’s 2022 season at the same stage of the playoffs.

“When you make little mistakes against good teams, they make you pay,” Flores said. “I think we made great strides in being competitive with every team we played. I know the girls next year will continue to be positive and supportive of each other. You just have to believe you will be successful.”

Flores has signed an NJCAA letter-of-intent to play next year at Garden City Community College. She doesn’t know what position she will play, but said she simply wants to help her team just as she did for her high school team.


GARDEN CITY—Thania Flores, 12; Isabel Espino, 10; Andrea Aguliar, 12; Leydaly Enriguez, 12

HAYS HIGH—Arely Maldonado, 11; Dani Willeford, 10; Katie Dinkel, 12

DODGE CITY—Jazmin Ruiz, 10; Emily Alonso, 12

LIBERAL—Nicole Catalan, 10

GREAT BEND—Sage Simon, 12

PLAYER OF YEAR—Thania Flores, Garden City

COACH OF YEAR—Jose Vital, Garden City


HAYS—Aspen Melvin, 12; Kinslee Newell, 9

DODGE CITY—Iran Rodriguez, 12; Ariana De La Rosa, 11

GARDEN CITY—Ariel Martinez, 11; Wemdy Zamudio, 11

LIBERAL—Hailey Contreras, 11; Arely Rivas, 11; Isabella Gutierrez, 10

GREAT BEND—Jazmin Calzada, 11; Jillian Reimer, 10