Sunflower League football preview: SM West hopes to repeat state championship

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09/03/2013 6:07 PM

05/16/2014 10:08 AM

Congratulations, Shawnee Mission West, you won your first Kansas Class 6A football state championship in 27 years.

Now, go do it again.

The Vikings weren’t heavy favorites to claim the state crown a year ago, but there’s a massive target on them now.

Still, coach Tim Callaghan said he won’t let SM West become the hunted.

“It’s always easier to challenge your own kids when everybody’s against them and people don’t think you can do something, but we’ve spun it the other way,” he said. “We still want to be the hunter and not the hunted. It’s the law of the jungle. You’re either prey, or you’re the lion and you’re hunting your prey.”

The Vikings were a near unanimous pick to repeat as Sunflower League champions in large part because of the large guys they have back in the trenches.

Seniors Austin Chambers (6-5, 275), Lee Spight (6-0, 210) and Marquan Osbey (5-11, 190) form the nucleus of a tough offensive line.

Quarterback A.J. Verdini returns with a year of experience and is teaming with one of the state’s top playmakers, senior wide receiver and Kansas commit Andre Maloney.

Senior Mitch Wade also returns at receiver with fellow senior Rashawn Owens returning at fullback.

SM West must replace the only 2,000-yard rusher in its history, Brett Sterbach, but there’s a lot of buzz about seniors Juanaye Stallings and Carrddyn Steele,

Big things also are expected from senior tight end Justin Hobbs.

Defensively, Chambers and Spight are back on the line with Osbey, Owens and senior Cooper Arner at linebacker. Maloney, an elite kick returner, also starts in the secondary.

There are holes to fill, too — most notably linebacker Max Bullard and cornerback Kez Demby — but the Vikings have a pipeline of talent to plug the vacancies.

“Our defense should be pretty solid,” Callaghan said. “We feel pretty good about the team overall. We’ve got some kids coming back with some experience, and we’ve got a good nucleus coming back.”

OLATHE EAST

Some opposing coaches in the Sunflower League thought Olathe East had the top defense last season.

With seven returning starters for the Hawks, their opponents had better prepare for more punishment, because Olathe East’s seasoned defense might be even better, led by senior linebacker Nathan Guthrie.

“He’s got Division I potential,” coach Jeff Meyers said of Guthrie “He’s our top returner of the defensive group, but we have several others in that group who are pretty doggone good.”

Senior defensive end Connor Alexander and senior cornerback Braxton Love certainly are in that category along with junior cornerback Jalen Branson and three other returning linebackers — seniors Trenton Clark, Brandon Trinkle and Parker Evans.

“I’m sure hoping our defense is a strength,” Meyers said. “We return seven kids with an awful lot of experience, so you hope that translates into being a strength of your team. We’re not the biggest guys, but we have some speed with that experience.”

Senior Kyle Evans will step in at free safety, and junior Bryson Hinson is expected to start at defensive tackle.

Things are a little more unsettled on offense, which features four two-way returning starters.

On hand again are Alexander at tight end, Guthrie at wide receiver and both Trinkle and Branson in the backfield. Senior Jordan Brown also returns at running back, but the Hawks will be breaking in a new quarterback, senior Connor Leach.

“You never know until they actually get into the fire how they’re going to be,” Meyers said. “But I feel confident in Connor Leach as our starting quarterback. He’s done everything I’ve wanted him to do in practice.”

Leach, who also plays baseball and wrestles, brings a toughness to the position Meyers appreciates.

Of course, one possible issue is that Olathe East is also breaking in a new offensive line with senior Skyler Schmitt at center flanked by senior Rob Wall and junior Ryan Perrin at the guard spots with senior tackles Drake Sparks and Riley Curran serving as the bookends.

Love will play some wide receiver, and Clark will get the first crack at fullback.

OLATHE NORTH

The first year of Gene Wier’s return as head football coach at Olathe North could have gone better.

Besieged by injuries and inexperience, the Eagles had a 3-7 record but managed to squeak into the playoffs with wins over district rivals Olathe Northwest and Olathe South.

Now, in Wier’s second season in his second go-round at Olathe North, expectations once again are soaring like, well, an Eagle.

Running back Venus Triplett returns after racking up 981 yards as a sophomore. He could be the next great Olathe North tailback.

He’s joined by junior quarterback Cole Murphy, who started early last season, but he was injured in the third game and missed the rest of the games.

Also, tight end Josh Moore and slot receiver Mauricio Chio are back, but center Matt Ceballos is the lone returning starter on the offensive line.

Of course, the offensive line is one of the Eagles’ few question marks.

Tyler Bacon and Morgan Stahl are stepping in at tackle, and Michael Chau and Tad Davis will start at guard.

“They’re bigger bodies, but they haven’t played with the lights on,” Wier said. “They’ve been daytime players (on the junior varsity), so we’ll see how they respond.”

No matter, the defense appears to be lights out.

Olathe North already was stoked about its linebacking corps before TCU commit Jimmie Swain returned. He played for the Eagles as a sophomore but transferred to Lee’s Summit last season.

Marcel Spears, a junior returning starter, also is expected to be a force at linebacker along with fellow junior Jesse Kendricks.

Moore returns at nose guard with Marcel Williams at defensive end, while cornerback Kai Rowden and safety Jamil Brown are back in the secondary.

So, is Olathe North a legitimate championship contender again?

“I don’t know about that,” said Wier, who guided the Eagles to six state titles from 1996-2002. “That’s what everybody else says, but I didn’t know that we’d be in for 3-7. I really don’t predict those things, because a lot of how good you are is how good everybody else is.”

Still, word to the wise: Don’t sleep on the Eagles.

OLATHE NORTHWEST

There are some football observers in the state who believe that Olathe Northwest is a sleeping giant, that the talent is there for the Ravens to emerge as a football power. . . someday.

Chip Sherman hopes to wake them up.

Of course, they might take baby steps.

“They were 2-7 last year, and they’ve never had a true winning season, but it’s like we tell the kids, ‘Just get better every day, and the winning and losing takes care of itself,’” said Sherman, who spent the last four seasons at Shawnee Mission East.

Sherman is no stranger to building a program. He did it at Platte County in Missouri, Salina South and most recently with the Lancers, enjoying success at every stop.

Olathe Northwest isn’t likely to be any exception.

“We’re having fun with it, and I think we’re making some good progress,” Sherman said. “The pieces of the puzzle are there. We just have to put it all together.”

Perhaps the biggest piece, quarterback, remained unsettled the week before kickoff with senior Cole Dahlquist and sophomore Jack Hatzfeld locked in competition for the starting job.

At least whoever wins will have some experienced weapons in Sherman’s spread offense with seniors Nathan Power and Chase Gitlin returning at wide receiver along with juniors Adam Harter and Manny Psihountas.

Senior running back Cody Sestrich also is back, although the line remains a work in progress.

Senior Pranwab Chhettri is in the offensive line mix with juniors Jake Yarbrough, Warren Sears and Blake Bascue.

Defensively, senior Randal Byers returns on the line along with juniors Mitch Holsinger and Dean McCollum, while senior Blake Bersted and Eli Pruss return at linebacker.

Senior Chiron Chapell and junior Zee Pinkerton are back in the secondary for a Ravens squad desperately searching for depth.

Senior Queston Bradley and Trevor Bowley ought to make an impact on the defensive line along with junior Duncan Boudreaux and junior linebacker Mitch Kennedy.

Not everything will be smooth in Sherman's year one, but there’s reason for hope.

“The beauty of it is that we’re really young,” Sherman said. “We’re going to get better and keep working.”

OLATHE SOUTH

Two years ago, Olathe South won the Kansas Class 6A state football championship, but the Falcons failed to make the playoffs last season.

Chances are, coach Jeff Gourley’s squad will find itself somewhere in the middle again when the dust settles in 2013 — or that certainly was the expectation before the summer started.

“We always expect to do well, but I’m not going to lie, this senior class has never put together a wow season,” Gourley said. “They’ve always been very average. To my pleasant surprise, this senior class has stepped way up. I’m so proud of them for the effort and energy they’re putting into the season.”

It starts, as it has for the last three seasons, with two-way lineman Braden Smith, a 6-foot-6, 275-pound tackle who is among the most highly recruited players in the nation. He anchors the Falcons' offensive and defensive lines, but he’s also one of their few returning starters.

On offense, Smith and fellow lineman Chase Latscha return along with wide receivers James Hart and Dominic Barbosa.

Junior Jake Seurer steps in at quarterback.

Seurer should love throwing to massive junior tight end Coleman Clanton (6-5, 250), whom Gourley says “runs like a deer” and has elite NCAA Division I potential.

There’s also a nice stable of running backs to choose from, including senior Thomas McCue, who’s “tough as a pine knot” in Gourley words.

Also a cornerback, McCue is the Falcons’ only returning starter on defense besides Smith. They are joined by Cameron White, who’s returning from a torn ACL, and Dresden Wilbur.

Sophomore Joshua Watson, a transfer from Liberty, might be the best of the bench, though, and another sophomore, Alex Coons, could earn a few carries as well.

Along the line, Clinton Blankenship steps in at center with Nate Howard at guard and Thomas Gandy at tackle.

Defensively, Seurer will see time at safety with Howard, while Clanton and defensive tackle Scott Preston help round out the offensive line.

The unenviable task of replacing linebacker Remington Whitley falls to Stephen Miller and Mitch Easley.

SHAWNEE MISSION EAST

Under Chip Sherman the last four seasons, Shawnee Mission East morphed into one of the most pass-happy spread teams in Kansas.

Those days are gone, now that Sherman has moved on to Olathe Northwest and former Emporia coach Dustin Delaney was tapped to take over the Lancers.

Now, they are changing again to a flexbone attack.

“What we’re doing is totally different,” Delaney said. “It couldn’t be more different than what we did before.”

Still, coming off a 7-3 season, Delaney doesn’t view SM East as a rebuilding program.

“We want to win,” Delaney said. “We’re not hoping to just be .500 or get in the playoffs. Our expectations are a lot higher than that. I don’t see any reason why we can’t be competitive.”

Much of his optimism is fueled by what he has seen from a young defense, which is installing a 4-2-5 system.

While the offense doesn’t return a single starter, the defense returns four, including linebacker Ryan Carter and two linemen — defensive tackle Dominique Atkinson and defensive end Kyle Ball.

Defensive back Mitchell Tyler also is back and will be joined in the secondary by Charley White and Will Oakley, while Sam Williams steps in at defensive end opposite Ball.

“We have some kids that can play,” Delaney said. “Particularly on the defensive line, we have some kids who can play, and we’ve got a good leader in Ryan Carter there at linebacker. I like our speed and playing ability in space throughout the secondary.”

Offensively, Christian Blessen takes over at quarterback and is expected to emerge as a dual threat, while Luke Taylor and Mitchell Tyler step in at running back.

Wide receiver Alec Dean projects as the Lancers’ top wide receiver.

The new-look offensive line has three juniors locked into starting roles — center Will Kaiser, right guard Devin Price and left tackle James Wooldridge.

“Everybody thinks we don’t pass because we play the option, but my team at Emporia last year threw for more yards than (SM) East did,” Delaney said. “We’ll tailor our offense to our kids.”

SHAWNEE MISSION NORTH

Don Simmons has been away from the Kansas City area for a few years, but longtime high school football fans will remember when he piloted Blue Valley North to a 37-10 record from 1997-2001.

Now, Simmons is back as the head coach at Shawnee Mission North after spending the last nine years in Chanute, Kan., where the Blue Comets reached the Class 4A playoffs every year and compiled a 65-32 record.

Simmons’ current reclamation project won’t be an easy task. SM North, winless a year ago, has gone 13-60 with only one playoff appearance in the last eight seasons.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but we’re trying to build it as fast as we can,” said Simmons, whose resume includes a 194-95 career record. “The kids are buying into what we’re doing and they’re having fun.”

SM North is installing a one-back spread offense. Simmons likes to chuck the ball around and is switching to a 4-2-5 on defense.

With the new schemes and a fresh slate, Simmons doesn’t consider the Indians to have any returning starters, but there are plenty of kids with varsity experience.

“We wanted to start completely over from scratch, so we told the kids every position was up for grabs,” Simmons said. “We wanted everybody to compete and earn their way in.”

It starts with senior wide receiver-cornerback Jesse Patterson, who has emerged as a leader on both sides of the ball. Simmons said senior two-way lineman Maceo Mitchell has impressed as well.

Junior Jacob Langley will be the primary running back, while big things are expected from junior wide receiver Nick Perez.

Juniors Alec Turnbull and Darrell Jackson bring additional experience on the line, but the quarterback position, a battle between junior Tyler Henry and freshman Will Schneider, remained unsettled a week before the first game.

Senior linebacker Dakota Boyd anchors the defense, which also includes Perez at free safety in addition to Patterson and Mitchell.

Junior Jonathan Presler will start alongside Boyd, while senior Blaze Nelson — all 6-5 and 315 pounds of him — ought to eat up blocks on the line.

SHAWNEE MISSION NORTHWEST

Shawnee Mission Northwest finished with a 2-7 record in Linn Hibbs’ first season as the head football coach, but he is confident familiarity will yield improvement this fall.

“Knowing the kids better will help,” Hibbs said. “After spending an off-season with them, we’ll be able to work more toward our kids’ strength and put them in the position to be successful.”

Senior Jake Horner started at wide receiver last season, but he’s moving to quarterback in the Cougars’ I-formation attack. He appears to have an inside track in the competition with junior Clay Drouillard.

Up front, SM Northwest returns seniors Logan Miller and Derrick Bennett with senior Patrick McAnerney and junior Neil Stimach also locking down other starting spots.

Big things are expected from senior running back Jake Hoskins, who is the returning starter at free safety, but he will go both ways.

Another senior running back, Jacob Gilliam, will help shoulder the load, while seniors Spencer Cook and Alex Springer will see time at wide receiver along with junior Donte Colum.

“Our offense bogged down at times last year,” Hibbs said. “We definitely need more consistency, but I feel like we have more playmakers now.”

With Hoskins back along with Horner and senior Khalil Hattley at cornerback, the secondary should be a strength, but the burden to lead the Cougars’ 4-4 defense falls on senior inside linebacker Devin Shockley.

“He needs to be the leader of our defense,” Hibbs said. “He’s got a world of ability, but he needs to play at a high level for us to be successful.”

The same goes for senior lineman Ariska Savior. He is joined by fellow tackle Gabe Falcon on the line’s interior with senior Connor Johnson and junior Kendall Spencer as the bookends.

Cook, Stimach and junior Alex Quinn also will see time at linebacker.

“We feel like we’ll be much improved over last year, we have to win the takeaway margin and we’ve got to get tougher,” Hibbs said. “We must get more physical and get it in our mind how hard we have to play every snap.”

SHAWNEE MISSION SOUTH

Shawnee Mission South is in the middle of a lost generation as far as football success is concerned.

No SM South football team has finished better than 5-5 since at least 1997 — or about the time most of its present roster was born.

The Raiders, however, hope such dark days will soon be mere memory.

“We’re not going to be satisfied with 4-5,” said Ryan Lonergan, who is entering his third season as SM South’s head coach. “We’ve got the talent to compete with everybody on our schedule. It’s a matter of going out and executing a game plan. If we’re not making the playoffs, we’re not going to be happy.”

That optimism isn’t unfounded either, not with a veteran group back on the offensive line and some skill-position talent to complement it.

“We’ve got four guys on our line who started as sophomores and are now seniors,” Lonergan said. “We’re going to be bigger, stronger and more athletic than we’ve been. That’s definitely the strength of our offense.”

Dametrius Berry, Stephen Erickson, Marcus Neal and Terry Adams all return on the line along with senior tight end Nick Oliver. Dominique Berry rounds out the starting line, which won’t have running back Gabe Guild to block for anymore.

Still, the Raiders expect Ra’Keim Abdul to step into the sizable void left by Guild and emerge as a star.

“Ra’Keim’s more of a finesse kind of player,” Lonergan said. “He’s a different type of player, but he’s a dynamic player and can do tremendous things.”

Jawann Stennis and Dalton Lewallen will join Abdul in the backfield along with Chase Allen at quarterback. Ethan Kaplan and Brendan Brooks move into starting roles at wide receiver.

Abdul, a returning starter at free safety, also leads the defense, which returns Oliver and Dametrius Berry on the line with Stephen Erickson and Zach Gerber at linebacker.

Senior Rasheed Brady will be paired at inside linebacker with Erickson, while Lewallen and Joe Fales are in the mix at outside linebacker, a position group that projects as a strength for the Raiders.

Kendall McCoy will start in the secondary.

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