Mill Valley learned a number of things from its undefeated run in the regular season last year. Perhaps the biggest was the fact that the Jaguars are now ready to play with the big boys.
Mill Valley dropped the Kansas Class 4A schools from its schedule and added a difficult slate of 5A and 6A opponents in its open weeks. That should make for a difficult, yet exciting season starting with the Jaguars’ opener at 7 p.m. on Sept. 5 against St. Thomas Aquinas.
“It’s going to be a completely different mindset for our program, but that is a good thing because we are at the point where we need to take that step as far as our schedule goes,” Jaguars coach Joel Applebee said. “We are excited and our kids have worked really hard to get ready for the season.”
The Jaguars lost 23 seniors from last year’s team that went 10-1 and finished with a crushing loss to eventual state champion Blue Valley in a Class 5A sectional final. Although they do not return many seniors, Applebee said the whole team benefitted from last year’s run.
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“They got experience and they got to see how every week — especially at the playoff level — you want to be playing your best football at that time of the year,” Applebee said.
Left tackle Evan Applegate, who committed to Kansas State earlier this month, is the biggest name on the team. Applebee says junior left guard Ben Hecht has the potential to be just as good.
Although De Soto has faced declining win totals in the last four seasons, coach Brian King says the Wildcats are ready for a turnaround.
De Soto made the playoffs every year from 2008-12, but even then the rough patches were starting to show. The Wildcats finally hit the lowest point last year, posting an 0-9 record and getting outscored 232-67. They battled a flurry of injuries that left them to rely on fourth-string running backs and tailbacks.
Even then, they played a couple of close games, losing by three points to Ottawa, holding Eudora to just one touchdown and losing by one point to Bonner Springs.
“Last year’s group did everything we asked them to do and this year we’ve asked a little bit more in the summer time,” King said. “They’ve worked (hard) and hold each other accountable. They’ve been doing the work they need to be doing.”
The Wildcats return a lot of experience from that team, with eight offensive and eight defensive starters coming back. The biggest question will be whether they can keep running back and versatile playmaker Jason Johnson healthy. He sustained a high-ankle sprain against Eudora in week three last year, which kept him out the remainder of the season.
The Wildcats will also turn to Josh Miller at fullback, Devon Freeman at middle linebacker and Chandler Carter who plays offensive and defensive line.
De Soto starts the season against Harmon at 7 p.m. on Sept. 5 at home.
Coming off back-to-back district championships, coach Anthony Orrick said Spring Hill has had one of the best summers he has seen in six years there as head coach.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm this year and our seniors have really stepped up well and taken on some leadership roles and I’ve been really impressed with what we’ve seen so far,” Orrick said.
It is not just enthusiasm which gives Orrick confidence, but the numbers are up too. Spring Hill returns 21 seniors, which is the most he has had.
“This group came in and had a lot of success as freshmen. Now they are kind of the backbone for us,” Orrick said. “It’s a good nucleus of kids and I think they have decided this is their team, their chance and their time, so they are giving us everything they’ve got.”
One of the team’s most experienced positions will be the offensive line, where it returns Christian Esparza and John-Michael Weishaar. That should help Ryker Johnson adjust to playing full-time at quarterback this season, after he filled in for a handful of games last year. He also has the benefit of returning the team’s leading rusher in Tyus Heinrich.
Defensively, Spring Hill will turn to linebackers Austin Grate and Zack Mayhan for leadership.
Spring Hill will start the season at 7 p.m. on Sept. 5 at Paola.
ST. JAMES ACADEMY
Coach Tom Radke has a special bond with this year’s seniors at St. James Academy that makes him confident that they can contend as they move to Kansas Class 5A.
“They were freshmen my first year at St. James, so they are my first group I’ve had for four years,” Radke said. “They know my system, they know what we expect as all of our coaches and I’ve had almost every one of those kids in class, so there are no surprises from me.”
The Thunder return 15 seniors from last year’s state playoff team and each one of them is expected to start. Two of the top returners Radke will rely on for leadership are free safety Connor Moore and cornerback Braxton Lewis. Moore is a two-year starter who had 63 tackles, including five for loss last year. Braxton, who is the son of former Chiefs cornerback Tahaun Lewis, had 29 tackles with six interceptions and two pick sixes.
The Thunder are coming off the program’s first state playoffs appearance, where they lost in the bi-districts round of the 4A state playoffs. They finished with a 6-4 record last year.
“The way these guys have worked is the best I’ve seen in nine years as a head coach,” Radke said. “It’s a good tight group and when you’re working hard, special things can happen.”
St. James will play host to Pleasant Hill at 7 p.m. on Sept. 5 to start the season.