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Indians travel to Liberal for WAC opener

By AUSTIN COLBERT

acolbert@dailynews.net

The Gary Cornelsen Sports Complex at Liberal High School stands as a testament to its namesake, who led the Redskins to 26 state championships in football and track from 1991 to 2004.

Its dedication ceremony took place Sept. 30, 2011, during the football team's game against Garden City. That was the first time Gary Cornelsen had been to a Liberal football game since leaving seven years earlier.

On Friday, Gary Cornelsen will make a second trip to Liberal, but this time under a much different circumstance.

"I was really honored when they made the dedication. I didn't know at the time I'd be coaching at Hays today. Just kind of a strange feeling," Gary Cornelsen said. "It will be the first time I've coached a game at Liberal, against Liberal."

Gary Cornelsen is now an assistant football coach at Hays High School after a short stint as a coach for Tascosa High School in Amarillo, Texas, where he still calls home. His son, Ryan Cornelsen, is the head football coach at Hays High.

This is the second year Gary Cornelsen is serving as an assistant under Ryan Cornelsen at Hays High, providing him a rare opportunity to spend time with both his son and grandchildren.

"It gives us a chance to spend time together, and it gives him a chance to be around my kids," Ryan Cornelsen said. "We've always been coaching at the same time, so during this time of year we never got to spend much time together since I've been out of high school.

"It's been really good. We don't know how long it's going to last, but we are excited to have him."

Ryan Cornelsen is also a native of Liberal and played football for his father in high school. He was a free safety during the Redskins' state championship team in 1995 -- one of four Class 5A state championships in football under Gary Cornelsen -- and helped guide them to a runner-up finish at state during his senior season in 1996.

Ryan Cornelsen inherited his father's ability to coach, going 53-13 as the head coach at La Crosse before taking over at Hays High in 2009, where he has a record of 31-9 following the team's 2-0 start this season.

"I get asked all the time about being in his shadow, but I never even looked at it that way," Ryan Cornelsen said. "I'm just proud of what he did and was excited to be a part of it as a player and as his son."

Now Ryan Cornelsen is trying to build the same sort of program at Hays High as his father had at Liberal, while the Redskins are trying to return to their glory days after coming off back to back 2-7 seasons under third year coach Cliff Abbott.

Despite being a long way from looking like a Gary Cornelsen team, Liberal is much improved over last season. The Redskins opened with a 56-41 win over Ulysses and followed with a 56-0 pounding of Guymon (Okla.) last week.

Friday's meeting between Hays High and Liberal will also kickoff Western Athletic Conference play for both teams.

"They are drastically improved over the last two years -- this is by far the best Liberal team we've played against since I've been here," said Ryan Cornelsen, who is 4-0 against Liberal, including a 51-34 win last year in Hays.

While Ryan Cornelsen has gotten used to playing against -- and at -- his alma mater, Friday's 7 p.m. game at Liberal is likely to bring forth completely different emotions from Gary Cornelsen.

"I'm sure it's something he is looking forward to," Hays High junior quarterback Alex Delton said. "When he took the job here, I knew his past and it's kind of ironic that he goes back to a stadium named after him."

Delton is sure to provide Gary Cornelsen some comfort on Friday. Gary Cornelsen coaches the quarterbacks and defensive ends at Hays High, and has spent a lot of time helping develop Delton into a Division I prospect.

Not that Gary Cornelsen will ever take credit for it.

"I don't know that I need to get much credit for Alex," Gary Cornelsen said. "Alex had a great spring throwing the football. He's already gotten stronger. He's been slowed a little bit by a groin injury, but hopefully we get him back to full speed this week.

"A good quarterback is hard to defeat."

Gary Cornelsen plans to make a short trip home to Amarillo following Friday's game. His wife, Debra, lives there with him when she isn't traveling north each weekend to watch Hays High. They have three more grandchildren living in Canyon, Texas, just south of Amarillo.

Both Gary and Debra Cornelsen have logged plenty of highway miles in support of Hays High, and no one appreciates it more than Ryan Cornelsen. Liberal happens to be the midway point between Hays and Amarillo, and on Friday will be host to a very unique homecoming for the Cornelsen family.

"There is no doubt, when it's your hometown, there are people around that you know. It's a place that not only you grew up in, but you were successful," Ryan Cornelsen said of Liberal. "You always hope they do well, just not this week."

NOTES

Delton's groin injury is all but healed, and he should be close to full strength for Friday's game .... Liberal quarterback Britton Abbott has passed for 783 yards in two games this season, nearly 300 yards more than the next best WAC passer, Garden City's Greyson Tempel .... Liberal's Trenton Hammond is the WAC's leading receiver through two games, with 442 yards .... Hays High's Clayton Riedel has three interceptions on the season, the only WAC player with more than one.