It will be the Class 5A District 6 showdown tonight, when underdog Great Bend High School (3-3 overall) takes on Salina Central (5-2) at Salina Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7.
Both teams are 1-0 in district play, and the winning team will emerge as the district champion, along with securing a berth in the state playoffs. Actually, the top two teams in the district qualify for the postseason.
“We’ve kind of felt like we’ve been the underdogs all year,” Great Bend head coach Bo Black said.
And, Black says his team embraces the underdog role.
“We’re just trying to find ways to win one game at a time,” Black said. “We’ve done very little looking forward and very little looking back. Whatever we’ve done last week, we’ve moved on to the next one and continued to get better.”
Great Bend parlayed some game-changing plays on offense with a stubborn defense that refused to let Hays make a big play during the Panthers’ 17-6 win last Friday to open district play.
Like the Panthers did the week before in a road win at Liberal, they have gotten better one game at a time, even though their coach says it’s been a case of trying to get better each day.
“It has been a blueprint (of our season),” Black said. “That’s exactly what it is. It’s not only been one week at a time, but one day at a time.
“What can we do to better ourselves as a football team on Monday? What can we do to better ourselves in meetings right now? and what can we do to better ourselves in the weight room right now? It’s a day-to-day deal.”
A concern most of the season has been Great Bend’s lack of a consistent running game, something Black has noted on several occasions.
“We got up 17-0 last week and we struggled to run the football,” Black said. “This week, we need to establish the run game. We still have to be able run the football with some consistency in high school.
“We need to open some holes on the offensive line, stay on our blocks a little bit longer and be a little more physical with our blocks.”
That said, Black wants his offensive line to ratchet up their play another notch.
“We’ve been trying to light a fire underneath (the offensive line) for a couple weeks now,” Black said. “You’ve got to be able to run the ball, burn the clock and keep the ball away from the other team in spurts.
“We’ve got to be more physical with our offensive line, if we’re going to truly make a run of making the playoffs. That’s the bottom line (tonight). We’ve got to be able to run the ball and we’ve got to be able to stop them from running and putting them in passing situations, not letting them be too balanced.”
Great Bend had a momentum-seizing 50-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown during the first quarter last week against Hays, momentum that seemed to stick with the Panthers the remainder of the game.
GBHS quarterback Greg Hildebrand threw the touchdown pass to Alex Reed, who beat his defender in man coverage, came back to the throw, snatched the ball out of Hays’ David Cardinal’s hands and raced the remaining 15 yards for the score.
“It was a huge play, and the ball was underthrown a little bit and there was pretty good coverage on it,” Black said of Reed’s TD. “He just went up and made a great play. Anybody that’s ever played football before, that’s a scary situation to be in when you’re out there by yourself and you know the kid is faster than you.
“We like to have those matchups. It’s obviously something you can’t run every single play, but it’s obviously always there and we know its there. It’s no secret that we’re going to try to continue to get home-run balls with Alex Reed, there’s no doubt about that.”
Great Bend’s defense gave up 254 rushing yards to Hays, compared to the Panthers totaling only 103 — 95 of which came from Hildebrand, mostly on option keepers.
“In the first half, when we were more-balanced, it helped our run game a little bit and the second half, looking back, we might have been too conservative, but we never had the ball,” Black said.
“We had only 12 snaps on offense during the second half.”
As difficult as it was to contain the Indians, the Panthers will have to counter with a more well-rounded offense in Salina Central.
“They have some success running, and they mix in the play-action pass,” Black said of the Mustangs. “As good as we got to the ball (against Hays), I say this every week, but we still have to be more physical with our offensive line and we’ve still got to be better tacklers.
“We had have really good gang-tackling, but we also had them wrapped up numerous times in the backfield and I think we need to be wrapping up and just running our feet through.”
Black pointed out that his team has made big strides since the start of the season.
“At the same time, we’re also happy with the progress,” he said. “We’ve come a long ways from from Week 1, where we couldn’t tackle my aunt out there running the football. There’s no doubt that we’ve gotten better throughout the year.”