The byproduct of enduring one of the toughest schedules in the state is definitely paying big dividends for Great Bend High School.
That’s why the Panthers are on the threshold of advancing to the Class 5A state football playoffs for the second straight season. Great Bend (4-3, 1-1) travels to Salina South (3-5, 1-1) tonight for the District 6 finale and a 7 o’clock kickoff at Salina Stadium — a make-or-break game with the winning team moving on to the playoffs.
Ever since their 55-14 loss to consensus Class 6A defending state champion Wichita Heights — a sure bet to repeat in the coming weeks — on Sept. 23, the Panthers have won three of their last four games.
The reason? An impressive running game that gets better every time out, simply because that’s the way they roll since starting out the season 1-2.
“I think the big thing is, that’s kind of what we do now,” Great Bend head coach Bo Black said. “It’s the change we’ve made and stuck with. We want to get our best players on the field. Our team has bought into being a physical football team on both sides of the ball. We’re real proud of the fact that we’ve put ourselves in this position, but we really want to finish it and get ourselves in the playoffs. We have a great challenge and a great football team that we have to go through to do that.”
Don’t be fooled by Salina South’s 3-5 record. The Cougars, like Great Bend, took Hays down to the wire before falling shy, 28-24. Great Bend lost to Hays 43-42 in an overtime thriller.
“They should have beaten Hays,” Black said of the Cougars. “They were winning by 14 points with six minutes left (24-14), and they also had the ball, first-and-goal on the 5-yard line to win it.”
But Hays (7-1) held for the win as it scored 14 points down the stretch to nail down a playoff berth with a 2-0 district record.
“They have to feel like we do,” Black said of South. “With four wins, we feel like we’re a pretty good football team and they have to feel with three wins, they’ve got a pretty good football team.
“They’ve played some great opponents and lost a really close game to (6A) Junction City (33-28) and lost to Hutchinson (42-24) … it wasn’t a blowout game. (The Cougars) have put up a lot of points on everybody that they’ve played.”
South lost 41-39 to McPherson in Week 2, followed by their narrow loss to Junction City and a 35-32 win over Newton. After losing to Hutch in Week 5, the first of three straight games where they allowed 42 or more points, South lost to Derby 42-14 before falling to crosstown rival Salina Central, 44-41.
“They have had a lot of offensive success in every game that they’ve played,” said Black of South, which averages over 400 yards in total offense, including a 326.1 per-game clip rushing average. They’ve got good players at the skill positions and great speed and great size. Their 3-5 record is not a legitimate judge of what kind of team they have.”
The Cougars have a 1,000-yard rusher in quarterback Christian Linenberger and a near-1,000-yard rusher in running back Cody Busby.
“Their quarterback is a great running threat and they use him in their option and triple option game and their mid-line,” said Black of Linenberger, who has accumulated 1,092 net yards in 113 carries for a 9.66 yards-per-carry average and 11 rushing touchdowns.
“Every time the ball touches his hands, he’s a threat to go the distance and he’s as good of a dual-threat quarterback that we’ve seen. He has great speed and a great understanding of the game.”
Busby has 966 yards for the Cougars, who have lost three of their last four.
“He had over 200 rushing yards against Hays,” Black said. “He is a really, really good running back.”
But it all starts with Linenberger.
“He’s just a really talented quarterback,” Black said. “It starts with shutting him down to shutting down their option game. We think if we’re going to be successful, we have to stop their option game and all phases of it.”