BUFFALO — No team should have to go through what Buffalo went through last season.
The Bison lost their best player, running back Laythen Good, a possible first-team all-stater, to a knee injury during the three-week practice period in June. And it didn’t get any better.
Another top senior, receiver Gabe Garrison, tweaked a knee in preseason drills and was never right the rest of the way. The team’s new quarterback, junior transfer Austin Hensley, suffered a shoulder injury making a tackle on the opening kickoff of the season and never got the chance to contribute under center.
Before the season was over, injuries KO’d a number of experienced players for short and long periods — running back Caleb Tucker, lineman Tony Mundell, receiver Isaiah Robinson and fullback Jacob Hanshaw among them. By midseason, 13 of the team’s 29 players were freshmen.
Not surprisingly, it resulted in an 0-10 season for Buffalo, a program that had been to the Class A playoffs each of the three previous seasons.
“We just had a bunch of injuries last year,’’ said coach Mike Sawyer, “and it seemed like all the older kids, the experienced kids were the ones getting hurt.’’
The injury to Hensley probably hampered the Bison most, since the team couldn’t utilize offensive weapons like Robinson and Garrison and became one-dimensional.
“[Hensley] was new,’’ Sawyer said, “so I spent the majority of time getting him ready to go, and I couldn’t give my second-team quarterback much time at all. So when he went down, my second-team quarterback wasn’t near ready.’’
With the Buffalo defense allowing 49 points per game, the offense never had a chance. But it did manage to produce a standout in then-junior running back Jordan Tucker, who was originally intended to complement Good.
Tucker ran for 1,405 yards, caught 17 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns, and tallied 23 overall TDs.
“It’s very unusual when someone does that, [when] you get so many yards,’’ Tucker said. “You never see someone get like 100 yards a game and then loses. But we’re all a team — we lose together and we win together.’’
Hopefully for the Bison, the winning resumes this year.
Tucker is back for his senior season, returnee Connor Fields is battling freshman Ethan Burgess to start at QB and all those freshmen from last season have a full season of experience filed away.
“Record-wise, we can’t get any worse,’’ Sawyer said. “The best you can take away from it is the experience that the freshmen got. Half our team was freshmen, so they got a lot of experience. I don’t know if it was good experience or not.
“As a freshman, you’ve got to adjust to the size and speed of everybody else. You’re talking about 14-year-olds against 17- and 18-year-olds. It’s a big change. But there’s another year under their belt not only experience-wise but being a year older makes you more sure of yourself. You want for that to happen with your [junior varsity] team, but we didn’t have one. Our JV team was pretty much our varsity team.’’
Youth is again being served in the smallest Putnam County school, as the 20 of the 30 players on the Bison roster are freshmen and sophomores. Only four seniors are scheduled to suit up.
Sawyer. who enters his 13th season as coach, looks to have some support for Tucker this year.
“Our offensive line will be much better,’’ Sawyer said, “and hopefully that will help Jordan have an even better year. We’ll not have to depend solely on Jordan this year. We’ll have some other people and other ways we can do things rather than: It’s just Jordan or nothing.’’
Tucker likes what he’s seen so far in the three-week summer practice period and the first few days of preseason workouts this week.
“Last year, we were just a freshman team,’’ Tucker said, “and no one had any experience. That was the one major fault. I think it’ll be a lot better. I think people are underestimating us now, and I think we’ll be good this year. It’ll be tough, but we can pull off some amazing things.’’
If nothing else, the Bison should have chips on their shoulders for going 0-10 just eight years after posting a 10-0 season.
“Most of them got in the weight room really hard this year,’’ Sawyer said. “It’s probably the best offseason workouts we’ve ever had since I’ve been here. We had more kids out there working hard, so that’s a good thing.
“We’ve been stressing a lot to them that we don’t want to go through what we went through last year, and we’re hoping they learn from that. If you do it too long, they can get used to losing and expect to lose, and we don’t want that to happen. So we’re trying to get that out of their system and come out and be a different ballclub.’’
Tucker, for one, doesn’t care how the metamorphosis takes place, as long as it does. If he gets 100 yards or zero yards, he’s watching the bottom line.
“I don’t really care what I do,’’ he said. “As long as we win, I’m fine. I’m just part of the team and I hope we all win.’’
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.