This is the second football season that Great Bend High School has been building for: Class 5A District 6 play – a three-game slate to determine who advances to the state playoffs.
This is where all the hard work and sweat and strain from two-a-days in August pays off.
This is where one of the toughest schedules in the state — featuring losses to all-class Super 10 powers St. Thomas-Aquinas, Wichita Heights and Dodge City — supposedly pays off.
When Great Bend (2-3 overall) battles Hays (5-1) tonight at 7 at Memorial Stadium on Blackout night for the local partisan crowd, the Panthers will be trying to get a leg up in the first of three district games.
The other game tonight in Great Bend’s four-team district pits a Salina Showdown — Salina South and Salina Central.
“Truly, I suppose we are battle-tested,” Great Bend head coach Bo Black said. “We’ve played a very good run team in Wichita Heights, and we’ve played a good passing team in St. Thomas Aquinas. We’ve played a very well-balanced team in Dodge City, and I think our kids have continued to progress.
“There’s not a kid here that thinks we’re real good right now. Everybody involved knows we need to get better. All three teams we will play are very good and we’re not quite where we want to be yet. We know we have to get better.”
The longstanding rivalry between Great Bend and Hays is taking a back seat tonight.
Well, sort of.
“It’s a huge rivalry game, but the rivalry is outweighed by the first game of a three-game season and the ultimate goal is to win all three,” Black said. “We’re simply preparing for it. It’s one of three football games that are very, very important in our ultimate goal of making the playoffs.”
Great Bend comes into tonight’s game riding the crest of a 42-16 road triumph over Liberal last Friday night. The Panthers rank No. 4 in the WAC in passing with 796 yards, although they are a game behind the rest of the conference teams statistically as they were idle during Week 2.
“There’s no doubt, if you watch film, they’ve improved drastically week-to-week,” Hays head coach Ryan Cornelsen said. “They’ve got some key guys at quarterback and running back, a couple good linemen and good receivers.
“They can move the ball, and they played tough against some of the best teams in the state. I think that’s worked well for them.”
Panthers quarterback Greg Hildebrand completed 17 of 24 passes for 277 yards in the Liberal game. Running back Jeremy Sigler had 88 yards in 16 carries, and Hildebrand gained 86 in 15 attempts.
The passing game has been steady all season, with the Panthers using a wide array of receivers throughout their five games. Their top weapons as of late have been Jace Bowman, who had eight catches for 135 yards, including 32- and 31-yard scoring receptions against Liberal, and breakaway threat Alex Reed.
By virtue of his big game last week, Bowman has moved up to No. 5 in the WAC receiving list with 273 yards on the season. The dangerous Reed, who had two catches for 60 yards against Liberal, has 243 yards, ranking seventh in the conference.
Moreover, there’s also receivers like Logan Buehler and Connor Sell to throw to.
“The one thing we realize is that any of our four receivers are capable of making plays,” Black said. “Our quarterback is obviously capable of making plays and the Sigler is a kid, if we give him some room, is going to make some plays.”
Sigler ranks No. 6 in the WAC in rushing with 337 yards.
“Not to beat the same old drum, but we were successful last Friday night because our offensive line protected the quarterback and they opened up some holes,” Black said. “You just don’t focus in on something like that for one week.
“The offensive line continues to get better and they took a step towards that last Friday night.”