The Great Bend High School Panthers proudly wore the label of having the toughest all-class football schedule in the state last season.
Expect the 2011 campaign to be no different.
The Panthers, who open their season on Sept. 2 with a road game at St. Thomas Aquinas in Overland Park, got better as the season progressed in 2010, coming on strong to win the Class 5A district championship and advance to the state playoffs.
The Panthers finished 4-5 overall, including 3-1 for second place in the Western Athletic Conference standings.
“The last thing I’m going to do is sit here and whine about our schedule, but looking back on last year, we have the same teams on our schedule this season,” said Great Bend head coach Bo Black, who owns an impressive 70-34 record entering his 11th campaign with the Panthers. “We’ve got beat by the defending state-champion 6A team (Wichita Heights) and arguably the second-best team in 6A in Dodge City.
“We got beat by the 5A state runner-up in the playoffs (Bishop Carroll) and we also got beat by a very good St. Thomas Aquinas team, one of the better teams in 5A, and a very good Salina Central team.”
After having a bye week during the second week this season, Great Bend entertains WAC foe Garden City on Sept. 16 before traveling to Wichita to play powerhouse Heights in Week 4 on Sept. 23. The Panthers host defending WAC champion Dodge City on Sept. 30.
Dodge City is coming off a memorable yet bittersweet season, winning its first 11 games before Heights made a furious comeback in the second half to beat the Red Demons 42-38 in the 6A state semifinals. Heights followed that up with a dominating 48-14 win over Olathe North in the title game, securing its first state crown in school history.
After hosting Dodge City, Great Bend has a second straight home game on Oct. 7, with Liberal coming to town for Homecoming.
The Panthers’ final three regular-season games — at Hays (Oct. 14), at home against Salina Central (Oct. 21) and at Salina South (Oct. 28) — round out district play, determining two state playoffs participants.
“There’s no one on that schedule that you can take for granted,” Black said. “It’s a very, very tough schedule, but at the same time, we fully expect and truly believe that we can beat anyone we play.”
The Panthers tough schedule is a byproduct of design.
“We have high expectations, like we do every year, despite our tough schedule,” Black said. “Really the last four years, the schedule that we’ve had, as a coaching staff, our viewpoint on that is probably a lot different than most staffs you run into.
“The bottom line is that at the end of your football season, you want to really feel like you’ve reached your full potential and you’re the best football team that you can possibly be.”
That sometimes means taking some lumps along the road, coupled with some growing pains.
Despite starting out 1-4 last season, the Panthers won three of their next four games to advance to the playoffs, where they lost to eventual 5A state runner-up Bishop Carroll. Although Great Bend lost to Salina Central, which leveled its district record to 1-1 at the time, the Panthers won the district outright after they beat Salina South and Hays knocked off Salina Central.
Carroll ultimately advanced to the state championship game, falling to Blue Valley, 35-14, the same school Black’s Panthers lost to in the 2006 state title game.
“If you’re concerned as a head coach about your record and you want to be 8-1 or 9-0, then you don’t play this type of schedule,” Black said. “But if you truly want to be the best that you can be, you go out and play the best teams in the state and that’s what we want to do.
“The goal is obviously to be the best team that you can be at the end of the regular season and find your way into the playoffs.”
• Saturday’s scrimmage
The Panthers had a controlled scrimmage late Saturday morning.
“They came out and tried hard to make everything perfect and we’ve been practicing for a week,” Black said. “We think everything went pretty well.
“They know we have a lot of things to correct and a lot of mistakes to correct, but it went OK. It was OK.”
Asked about players that stood out in the scrimmage, Black said, “I think we were real happy with our corners (cornerbacks) and how they played in juniors Brock Ibarra and Chris Burley.
“The freshman we’ve talked about, defensive end Jayce Brack, had a good scrimmage. Mauricio Uribe (senior wide receiver) had a good day on offense. Tyler Uselton, our senior offensive/defensive lineman, obviously is always going to have a good day.”
As far as the quarterback situation is concerned, it may come down to one of the QBs — junior Matt Marshall or senior Mitch Kottas — moving to the strong safety after junior Ethan Henderson suffered a knee injury in Saturday’s scrimmage and is likely to miss the season opener on Sept. 2 at Aquinas.
Black said he will talk to his quarterbacks on Monday or before and determine whom he will start at quarterback, and whom to move to strong safety.
“We feel like we will have to move one of the quarterbacks to strong safety.” he said. “Both of them have experience on defense and we’re not quite sure how to do it.
“They’re both good athletes and both have to be on the field somewhere.”