By Mike Pilosof
Garden City, KS-Some may call it a Cinderella rise into junior-college football's land of immortality, but if you studied how Garden City closed the 2015 season, you will uncover that there was nothing Cinderella about last year's national-title run.
After a 1-7 start in 2015, the Broncbusters righted the ship by knocking off No. 1 Butler, destroying Iowa Central before falling just short in their regular-season finale to Coffeyville. The common theme during that stretch: defense.
Vs. Butler, the Broncbusters forced two turnovers and sacked Grizzlies' quarterback Justice Hansen 10 times. Garden City duplicated that performance seven days later with 10 qb takedowns and added two more while forcing two turnovers vs. the Red Ravens. The wave of momentum carried over into 2016 as the brown and gold finished tops in the nation in total defense. It was the first time a Jayhawk Conference school had ever accomplished that feat.
"We had so much talent on that side of the ball," Head Coach Jeff Sims said. "We did not have a lot of depth. I mean, it was our top guy and that was it. But they managed to stay on the field."
But gone are the stalwarts from last year's fearsome group. Defensive lineman Jeremy Faulk just signed a contract with the New York Jets; linebacker Jamie Tago transferred to Hawaii; Delshawn Phillips is playing for Lovie Smith at Illinois while Gabe Luyanda is turning heads at Central Florida. Defensive back B.J. Blunt returned to McNeese State, the same school that recruited him out of high school in New Orleans.
"Those were some talented players," Sims acknowledged. "But they came together to form a more talented group."
A week into this year's version of fall camp, the defense is once again at the forefront, minus last year's big names.
Big-thumper Heston Lameta, who lit up spring drills, has been a force at linebacker for Josh Hager's unit. Then there's Matt Terrell, the transfer from Virginia, who looks like a young Brian Urlacher (the hair proves that he's Urlacher's Doppelganger). Michigan-State transfer defensive lineman Austin Robertson may not be Jeremy Faulk, but it's a good start for a defense that lost its biggest anchor. Then there's Cleveland-native Warren Saba manning the secondary. On the first day of conditioning, Saba showed off his sub 4.5 speed, barely breaking a sweat.
"At this point, the defense is ahead of the offense," Sims said. "But that's to be expected. We only have about 25 percent of the offense in."
What defined Garden City over the past season and a half will once again be the story in 2017. Josh Hager and his predecessor Brian Michalowski, who is now an assistant at Memphis, have a proven track record. And the numbers speak for themselves. Over the past 14 games, Garden City has allowed a team to crack 300 total yards only four times. During that same stretch, the Broncbusters have yielded just one, 100-yard rusher (Arizona Western's Trevaughn Rodriguez went for 135 yards on 29 carries in the national championship game).
"This next week is huge for our guy," Sims said. "We will start to filter things and begin to form our depth chart."
The Broncbusters season opener is 17 days away. They open up at home against Ellsworth on Aug. 24. Pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on 99.9 FM: westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and the KWKR mobile app.
Other odds and ends
After being picked to win the Jayhawk Conference for the first time since 2001, Garden City added another impressive feat to their resume. The Broncbusters were ranked No. 3 in College Football America Yearbook's Preseason JUCO Top 30. Earlier this summer, Garden City was picked as the best junior college program in the country by Street and Smith
Former Broncbuster linebacker Gabe Luyanda is reportedly tearing up fall camp at the University of Central Florida. Luyanda, who is attending school an hour from where he grew up, had a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown at practice over the weekend. The junior finished seventh on the team last season in tackles with 55. His 2.5 sacks ranked third behind Jamie Tago and Kahewai Kaaiawaawa.