Jon Holmes, entering his fourth year as head coach of the Bishop Miege football team, takes a moment to reflect on the progress the program has made during the 12 years he has been on staff.
The Stags have won two state championships in the last five years, with a runner-up finish in 2012. They also have won back-to-back conference titles and seven of the last eight district titles.
“To see what we were in my first couple years as an assistant to what we are now is night and day,” Holmes said. “Our kids expect to win every game and feel like they can.”
They did win every game last season and capped the year with a Kansas Class 4A Division I state title. Holmes and his staff, though, have made it clear to the players that the same success has to be earned each season and that the responsibility falls on the Stags’ senior class.
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“The 2016 class’ legacy starts Friday night,” Holmes said. “During the preseason, we set very high expectations, and they have worked out that way all summer. They are more than ready to get moving.”
The offense starts with running back Dawson Downing, who rushed for 1,960 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. He also had 18 catches for 282 yards and another five touchdowns.
Jafar Armstrong, who had 1,158 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season, will add some balance in the passing game, along with fellow wide receiver Danny Murphy and tight end Nolan Gray. All four players will also have the benefit of lining up behind a veteran offensive line, led by Colin Grunhard and Mark Golubski.
Defensive lineman Kaelin Key, who had 79 tackles and nine sacks last year, will anchor the defensive line. Rees Alena will lead the linebackers.
Coach Eric Driskell and his Blue Valley football team knew the transition to Kansas Class 6A last season would not be without challenge.
Blue Valley handled it with grace, though, advancing to the state quarterfinals with just one loss before falling to Olathe North. The Tigers finished the season 9-2 and now take aim on another Class 6A season.
“We were a couple plays short of advancing to the next round, and Olathe North made those plays,” Driskell said.
Driskell said that the Tigers benefit from the mixed classification of teams in the Eastern Kansas League, which includes one 4A team, two 5A teams and five 6A teams. Three teams from the league went to the state tournament, and Bishop Miege won the Class 4A Division I state title.
“I think the quality of opponents in each of those classifications is pretty comparable,” Driskell said. “Playing in our league, you get some of the best 5A and 6A opponents, so you get a good challenge week in and week out.”
The Tigers return a handful of offensive playmakers, including quarterback Colton McCumber and wide receiver Taylor DeBey. McCumber threw for 1,092 yards and nine touchdowns last season. DeBey ranked second on the team with 227 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Driskell will try to balance the offensive attack with veteran running backs Will Evans and AJ Totta, who combined for 1,888 yards and 26 touchdowns last year. Brandan Evans will anchor the offensive line ahead of them.
On defense, linemen Jeff Gurley and Rick Williams return, along with safeties Hank Daily and Derek Peck. Jake Watkins will start at outside linebacker.
The Tigers will start the season on Friday at home against Shawnee Mission Northwest.
BLUE VALLEY NORTH
Second-year coach Andy Sims has quietly turned the Blue Valley North football team into one of the most efficient passing offenses in the competitive Eastern Kansas League.
Quarterback Joey Dolan led the attack last year, passing for a 2,007 yards, 16 touchdowns and a 61 percent completion rate. He and his top target, Alex Blake, return. Blake had 762 receiving yards with eight touchdowns last season. Josh Pederson and Carter Howes combined for 750 more yards and six touchdowns.
“We got really good in the passing game, but we didn’t throw because that was the only thing I wanted to do,” Sims said. “At times we just couldn’t move the football. I’m hoping this year we can at least get to 50-50 (passing-rushing).”
Sims said a more experienced offensive line could be the key to a turnaround. The Mustangs return Sam Gutierrez, Tyler Koenig and Derrius Henderson who started all nine games last year. Brennan Morgan started another five games on the line and Ryan Klepper earned honorable mention all-league honors.
“We played all those juniors, which is great for year two, but the thing about teenage boys is you can’t get them to grow bigger, faster or stronger without time,” Sims said. “This year it’s nice to see guys filling out a little more, and I think our run game is going to be a lot better.”
In the running game, the Mustangs will look to Howes and Cooper Lantefield. Both were honorable mention All-EKL last season.
Blue Valley North starts its season at 7 p.m. Friday, when the Mustangs play host to Blue Valley Southwest.
BLUE VALLEY NORTHWEST
On paper, the Blue Valley Northwest football team appears to be one of the oldest and most experienced in the league, with 29 seniors.
In reality, the squad’s biggest challenge of the offseason has been bringing a big group of new starters up to speed after losing 11 first-team all-league selections. The Huskies return just three starters on offense and four on defense to start coach Mike Zegunis’ 11th year.
“We’re still going to be pretty young and inexperienced, but the boys have worked real hard, and they’ve been a lot of fun to coach these first couple weeks,” Zegunis said. “Sometimes the first couple weeks can be a grind, but they have gone by real fast and have been real fun.”
All the fun comes with a stark reality that the Huskies will be forced to grow up in a hurry. They face two state finalists in their first three games, opening on the road against Bishop Miege and then playing host to St. Thomas Aquinas in Week 3.
They went 5-4 last season, with a 4-3 mark in league play. BV Northwest lost to Eastern Kansas League foe Blue Valley in the final game of the season.
“I think we’re going to find out pretty early how we can hang with top teams around the league and the metro,” Zegunis said. “We’re going to be battle-tested by the time districts roll around.”
Jack Knutson, who was tabbed as a second team All-Eastern Kansas League defensive back, will lead the returners. Also back are honorable-mention selections Ian Trost at defensive line, Garrett Tierney at linebacker and Max Tierney at defensive back.
BLUE VALLEY SOUTHWEST
As a Blue Valley High School graduate and former assistant coach still living in the area, Anthony Orrick could not turn down the opportunity to make his own mark in a league that he used to call home.
That brought him to the Timberwolves’ head coaching job after six seasons at Spring Hill, where he led the Broncos to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and won district titles in 2012 and 2013. Spring Hill’s 2012 victory against Ottawa was the school’s first playoff victory since 1990.
“It was kind of like coming home for me,” Orrick said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to work at this school.”
Beyond the proximity, Orrick said he was also attracted to the opportunity of starting his own tradition of success at a school that is still relatively new. Blue Valley Southwest is in its fifth year of competition.
“It’s nice to come into a place that doesn’t have a ton of traditions already built in,” Orrick said. “Things are still fresh and new, so it’s not quite as difficult to come in and make a few adjustments and changes. It’s a very exciting time for a school that keeps growing.”
Orrick inherits a team that went 3-6 last year, but returns honorable-mention all-league selections in quarterback Collin Gallery and offensive lineman Jon Meyer. Other leaders from the senior class will be Dylan Curry, Brett Basler, Alex Barlett, Cameron Barclay, Zane Heflin, Thomas Uke and Kevin Woolworth.
BLUE VALLEY WEST
The realization came to Blue Valley West coach Scott Wright midway through the summer at Pittsburg State’s football team camp.
Not only did the Jaguars have the experience coming back in the defensive backfield, but the whole group was coming together with the potential to be one of the toughest in Wright’s time as head coach.
“I’m really excited about us defensively, because our back seven is really good,” Wright said. “It’s a combination of speed and a bunch of kids who have been back there a while that are really good.”
The bigger surprise for Wright is the defensive line, which he was unsure about going into the offseason.
“Up front, we thought we would be OK. But in one-on-ones with the offensive line — which has four guys back — they have been kind of kicking some butts,” Wright said.
A big part of the confidence comes from the fact that the Jaguars return several players from a defense that allowed just 24.44 points per game. That ranked fourth in the Eastern Kansas League last season. They held opponents to 207 yards on the ground and 123.89 yards through the air and finished with a 5-4 record.
Offensively, the Jaguars should be in decent shape. Quarterback Nathan Wiles returns, as does one of his top targets: Mark Collins Jr. Wiles stepped into the starting role in the second game last season and threw for 1,038 yards and 13 touchdowns. Collins, who is training as a backup quarterback, as well as playing wide receiver, kick returner and defensive back, caught 12 passes for 135 yards and three touchdowns last year.
The Jaguars will open their season on Friday with a trip to Lawrence.
It is hard to imagine that Gardner Edgerton coach Marvin Diener finds himself trying to rebuild a team after a winless season, considering he has six state championships and 10 state title game appearances on his resume.
Yet here we are with the young Trailblazers looking for their first victory since Nov. 1, 2013.
“We’re trying to rebound off a very devastating season, so this is kind of uncharted waters for our boys to try to regroup and once again reassert ourselves,” Diener said. “It’s been a real challenge, but they have been very determined, and we have had a good offseason.”
Gardner Edgerton will still be young, with defensive lineman Hunter Mulford as the only returning letterman with more than one year of experience. He is one of six seniors, among the team’s 16 returning lettermen, who are offensive or defensive linemen.
Offensively, the Trailblazers return several skill players behind the line, including quarterback Griffin Johns, receiver Zach Bass, right end Marshall Carpenter and running backs Hunter Skeens and Keegan Michael.
The Trailblazers will have a quick test, facing Kansas Class 6A defending state champion Shawnee Mission East in their first game on Friday. Then they turn around and play host to Class 4A Division I defending champion Bishop Miege on Sept. 11.
“We’ll be able to find out in a hurry how far our young guys have come, and I would be very disappointed if we don’t play very well, even early in the season,” Diener said. “If we can get some momentum early, I really believe that we can be a football team late in the year that can make a push to the playoffs.”
ST. THOMAS AQUINAS
When he decided to take the football coaching job at St. Thomas Aquinas last year after many seasons at Hutchinson, Randy Dreiling brought with him the grit and swagger that comes with seven state championships.
From day one his implemented platoon system, intense weight sessions and increased focus on schoolwork seemed to spark a revival that helped drive Aquinas to a platform of success not reached since 2008: the Kansas Class 5A state championship game.
Now in his second year at the helm, Dreiling said his Saints are hungry for more and in a good position to do it. Key returning pieces such as quarterback Karter Odermann and fullback James Cosentino serve as a foundation.
“They got a pretty good taste of the playoff picture,” Dreiling said. “They know that they can obtain some pretty lofty goals, and I think that has been in their minds all year while they’ve been working out. Those seniors realize this is their year, and we tell them all the time ... ‘It’s your year, your deal and your team. You either get it done or you don’t.’”
With Odermann and Cosentino back, the Saints are one of the biggest rushing threats in the Eastern Kansas League. They set a school rushing record in nine games with 4,242 yards. Cosentino, the league’s special teams player of the year, set the program’s individual record with 1,268 rushing yards before breaking his leg. Odermann ranks third all-time on the program’s rushing record book with 1,074 yards.
The Saints will also have the benefit of an experienced offensive line, which started four juniors at the end of the season. First-team All-EKL selection Zach Pfeifer will anchor the offensive line, with help from second-team pick Tom Killilea.
St. Thomas Aquinas plays host to Mill Valley on Friday in its opener.