The Dodge City Community College Conquistadors football team finished 4-7 overall in 2017, the first time they had lost more games than they won since going 3-8 in 2014.
Head coach Gary Thomas said “it was pretty bad” by the Conquistadors’ standards.
“Three out of the first four years we were in this league, we finished first or second,” Thomas said.
That was especially difficult considering the team was 3-1 after beating Ellsworth in week four. When they fell to 3-3, two of their losses had by one possession games with two minutes left to go.
“Last year was almost a perfect storm,” Thomas said.
The team was super young, Thomas said, with young linemen on both sides of the ball. On top of that, the team was incredibly banged up.
“We played 11 football games and never did we twice start the exact same starting lineup (in consecutive games),” Thomas said. “We had five different starting safeties, we had 11 different linemen that started a game for us.”
Lastly, the team was incredibly immature, Thomas said.
“You take the combination of being young, being injured and being immature and you get what you got,” Thomas said.
The coaches worked through the offseason to bring in what they think they needed, Thomas said. Players that weren’t buying into being successful student athletes were cut, and the staff also “recruited our butts off,” Thomas said.
“We’ve got a chance to be significantly better,” Thomas said. “Now we’re older on the offensive and defensive lines. We’ve got three returning starters on the offensive line, we’ve got six or seven guys on the defensive line that started a game for us last year at some point in time, we’ve got three different safeties that played really well for us in some point in time.”
The team has the pieces, Thomas said, now it’s just a matter of bringing the young guys along and making it all fit together where they need to go.
“We’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions,” Thomas said.
But in the places where a team can get beaten the quickest, he said the Conqs are a little more mature and a little more experienced.
One major unanswered question going into 2018 is what the team will do at quarterback. The team had Caden Walters one of, if not the best, passer statistically in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference last season.
Walters finished second in the conference in both passing yards per game (191.9) and passing touchdowns (21), behind only Garden City’s Terry Wilson in both categories.
Compared to the rest of the conference, the Conquistador passing game was numerically also the best or second best in most categories, but Thomas said that wasn’t by design.
“We didn’t go out there to throw the ball around the yard,” Thomas said. “A lot of that had to do with us being behind in the fourth quarter. Those stats are padded because we were trying to catch people.”
Ideally, teams that win KJCCC championships, the element they all generally can run the football effectively.
“The other common denominator is they all played great defense,” Thomas said. “Butler Community College forever was known for their great defense. Rion Rhoades does a great job on defense at Hutchinson. That year (in 2016 when Garden City won the national championship), Garden was one of the best defenses I’ve ever seen in 20 years of coaching football. The exception might be Independence probably wasn’t maybe necessarily in that category as far as dominant defensive teams but they played well enough obviously to win football games.”
The Conqs are trying to be balanced, running isn’t the only they want to do, but they key, Thomas said, is being able to run the football when you need to run the football.
Last year, the Conqs were young and made a lot of mistakes in the run game, Thomas said.
“We ran the football OK, we just couldn’t sustain the run game, and we couldn’t run the ball when it mattered,” Thomas said. “We had to throw the ball to set up the run, we need to be able to run the ball to set up the pass.”
There’s a lot of value to quarterback play, but when it comes to the Conquistadors, their success hasn’t necessarily been based on it.
“(In) 2013 we played with a true freshman quarterback, and going into the last game of the year we played for a conference championship with a true-freshman at quarterback,” Thomas said. “(In) 2014 we had a returning starter, all-conference quarterback, and we were awful. In 2015 we played with a true-freshman starting quarterback and we won the conference with a true-freshman straight outta high school. (In) 2016, we played with a true-freshman in Caden Walters and finished second in the conference overall. (In) 2017, with a returning, all-conference quarterback coming back, we were awful. Now he wasn’t awful, but we were awful.”
The Conquistadors won’t have a returning starting quarterback this year.