By Mike Pilosof
Photos by Adam Shrimplin
Dodge City, KS-Whatever happens this season, Garden City may look back to one play as their defining moment in 2019.
Trailing 22-7 with seven minutes to play in first half, the Broncbusters were reeling. But with one subtle move, Daniel Lavelle changed all of that.
The freshman transfer from Akron, punched the ball away from Dodge City running back Darius James, jolting life back into the Broncbuster cause. Garden City never looked back, answering with 35 straight points en route to a 42-22 pounding of the rival Conquistadors Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
"We weren't playing well at all," Head Coach Tom Minnick said. "But we fought our way back at the end of the first half, and just kept it going. We hurt ourselves big time."
Still feeling the sting from a heartbreaking three-point loss to Snow last week, the Broncbuster offense looked totally out of sync to begin the game. And while they were sputtering in mud, Dodge City looked revitalized, taking their opening drive 75 yards in six plays, capping it with Jace Orndorff's 37-yard touchdown pass to speedster Da'Quan Bailey-Brown. It was one of seven first-half catches for the South Florida commit.
"Offensively, we just made way too many mistakes," Minnick said. "Dodge City has a good football team. There young, but they took advantage of our mistakes."
After a three-and-out on Garden City's second possession, the Conquistadors smelled blood. On second-and-3 from their own 37, Orndorff hit Brown on a screen pass and watched the sophomore do the rest. Brown turned the corner and was off to the races, sprinting 57 yards. Only Kenny White saved a touchdown.
But there was a silver lining on that drive. The Broncbuster defense stiffened, and Orndorff was dropped for a one-yard loss on third-and-goal. That setup a 22-yard field goal by Moses Hinojos that put the Conquistadors up 10-0 with 5:56 to go in the first.
"We weren't running to the ball at all," Safety Kenny White said after the game. "We made it a point to follow where he (Bailey-Brown) was at all times."
Garden City's offense finally showed some life late in the first quarter. A 12-play, 70-yard drive, which included a massive fourth-and-7 conversion at the Dodge City 20, was polished off with Nate Cox's eight-yard scoring toss to Dominick Watt that trimmed the Conquistadors' advantage to 10-7.
"You have to give credit to our guys for continuing to fight," Minnick said. "It wasn't pretty, but we eventually got going."
Garden City's momentum was short lived, and it took Dodge City only three plays to respond. On third-and-5 from their own 32, Orndorff once again found Bailey-Brown, who streaked past everyone for 68 yards and a score, putting the home team up 16-7 (Renard Bozeman blocked the extra point) with 14:09 to go in the first half.
"We just weren't very good in the first half," White said. "But we wanted to show everyone that we're a good team."
Things went from bad to worse the next time Dodge City touched the ball. Orndorff marched the home squad 83 yards in nine plays, converting three third downs on the drive, the last of which was James three-yard rushing touchdown that stretched the Conquistador lead to 22-7 with 10:21 left in the second.
"I know we got behind, but our staff did a really good job of adjusting and putting together a game plan."
Down by two scores, the Broncbusters were in danger of getting blown out by an unranked team. That was until Lavelle stripped James, and Garden City recovered at the Dodge City 11. Two plays later, Cox used a play-action fake to roll right before lofting a perfect pass to tight end Maleak Bryant for a seven-yard touchdown. The score made it an eight-point contest at the 6:15 mark of the second.
"Coach (Mike) Orthmann, and the rest of the offensive staff did an incredible job tonight," Minnick said. "They put us in position to be successful."
That one turnover more than galvanized a team that had struggled mightily to find any sort of consistency. And the next time they had the ball, the Broncbusters inched closer, thanks to Jadon Hayes, who was one of four Garden City running backs to punch their ticket for six. On this drive, Hayes finished off a five-play, 64-yard march with a one-yard scoring run, pulling the Broncbusters to within one at the break 22-21.
"We're just going to keep doing what we're doing," White said. "We're not going to change. We figured some things out."
The Broncbuters more than figured out the Conquistador puzzle. In the third quarter, Garden City grabbed the lead for the first time, moving 76 yards in 12 plays. It included a third-and-12 conversion when Cox zipped a pass to Deandre Wallace for a gain of 24 down to the 8-yard line. One play later, Maine-transfer Ramon Jefferson, who was named a Freshman All-American last year, blasted up the middle from a yard out, giving the road team a 28-22 advantage.
Dodge City could sense the tidal wave was coming. And boy did it.
Jordan Ford, who replaced Jefferson on the following drive after the sophomore appeared to injure his shoulder, picked up the slack, using a sensational 20-yard run on the Broncbusters' next drive to set Garden City up inside the 20. Two plays later, it was Ford again, racing into the end zone from seven yards out.
"We just haven't been very good in starting games," Minnick said. "But once we got things going, it was hard to stop. That's the thing about this team-I don't think they know yet how good they can be."
With Garden City firmly in control, two plays highlighted the fourth quarter. The first was a dazzling interception by Krishon Merriweather, who halted Dodge City's 20-play drive that had Jerry Dominguez's defense on the field for nearly eight minutes.
The other involved running back Ellis Merriweather, who lost his starting spot this past week. But that didn't stop the sophomore from turning in the most spectacular run of the night. With less than four minutes to play, Merriweather took the handoff from Cox, spun off four different defenders, broke two tackles in the second level, and was gone, taking it 57 yards to the house. Game over. Comeback complete.
"Hopefully, this gives our guys some confidence," Minnick said. "Last week, we gained some confidence by coming back against a good football team. But they didn't finish. We needed to learn how to finish."
Cox was sharp for the second straight game. He finished 15-of-24 for 158 yards and two touchdowns for Garden City, who won for the 19th time in their last 22 road games. Hayes tallied his fourth career 100-yard rushing game, carrying the ball 19 times for 127 yards. Wallace shook off his week-one struggles to record four catches for 49 yards, and Merriweather had 13 tackles, one sack and an interception.
Orndorff, who was knocked out of the game in the second half, was 10-of-17 for 200 yards and two touchdowns for Dodge City. Bailey Brown totaled a career-high eight catches for 191 yards and two touchdowns.
Next up: Garden City vs. Ellsworth, Saturday, Sept 7-12:30 p.m. pregame; 1 p.m. kickoff on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app