Offensive player to watch
Olathe North senior running back Venus Triplett, the Sunflower League’s top rusher last season, returns after recording 1,530 yards and 25 touchdowns during the Eagles’ run to the substate championship. Triplett is in a good position to do damage to opposing defenses again.
Defensive player to watch
Shawnee Mission East senior defensive lineman Kyle Ball was a critical part of the Lancers’ run to the Kansas Class 6A state title game last season. He led the team with 111 tackles, including 30 for loss. He also had 10 hurries, eight sacks and a blocked punt as a defensive end. He was an All-Sunflower League first-team selection as a junior.
Olathe North is stacked talent-wise, with two players already committed to Division I programs and another two or three who are expected to do the same by the season’s end. Can all that talent stiff-arm challenger Shawnee Mission East, which defeated Olathe North in the substate championship game a year ago?
1. OLATHE NORTH
The Eagles are, without a doubt, the team to beat in the Sunflower League this season. Tight end Josh Moore is already committed to Ohio State, and linebacker Marcel Spears followed his announcement by committing to Iowa State. Olathe North went 8-4 last year before losing in the substate championship to Shawnee Mission East.
2. SM EAST
The Lancers made historic strides last season under first-year coach Dustin Delaney. Now, they come back hungry after losing in the Kansas Class 6A state championship game. The Lancers return 16 starters, including quarterback Gunnar Englund and linemen James Wooldridge, Devin Price and Kyle Ball.
3. OLATHE EAST
Olathe East has made the Kansas 6A state tournament for 13 consecutive seasons, but this year coach Jeff Meyers says there is no guarantee. The Hawks will have a lot of new faces after graduating 27 seniors, but 24 new seniors are ready to fill their shoes. The Hawks will turn to running backs Jalen Branson and Brett Kelsh for veteran leadership.
The Chesty Lions had to rely a lot on their sophomores last season, but those players should make valuable contributions as juniors with an additional year of experience. One of the juniors quickly making a name for himself is offensive and defensive tackle Amani Bledsoe, who is already fielding Division I offers. Other standouts include quarterback Alan Clothier and running back JD Woods.
5. LAWRENCE FREE STATE
The Firebirds went 9-2 last season and lost to Olathe North in a Kansas 6A sectional playoff game. But they lost a lot of talent from that senior class. However, an experienced offensive line should help maintain a high level of play. Kansas State commit Scott Frantz will anchor the line, along with Shane Hofer and Coleman Hauk.
6. SM WEST
After an emotional season that ended with a 4-5 record last year, the Vikings look to move forward and get back to the top of the league they won two years ago. The Vikings return five starters on offense and four on defense. A spark will be provided by offensive-line returnees Carter Pembridge, John Masterson and Mike McCray.
7. OLATHE SOUTH
The Falcons are not satisfied with back-to-back 5-4 seasons, and coach Jeff Gourley says his team has taken that as a challenge. Olathe South lost offensive lineman Braden Smith, who went to Auburn. In his absence, senior Chase Latscha has taken ownership of the position this summer by increasing his strength and agility.
8. SM SOUTH
The Raiders have made strides in their first three years under coach Ryan
Lonergan and are looking to take another big step this season. They return offensive linemen Ned Bingaman and Trent Flagler, along with a talented secondary led by Brendan Brooks and Tyler Perdue. Those two combined for four interceptions last year.
9. OLATHE NORTHWEST
When the Ravens brought in coach Chip Sherman and his 227-56 record, they were looking to get out of the bottom of the Sunflower League. They only went 3-6 in his first year, but the improvements were apparent. They return offensive guard Mitch Holsinger, safety Ethan Wall and running backs Adam Harter and Eli Pruss.
The Pioneers lose one of the Sunflower League’s top rushers in Jason Randall, who is now at Missouri State. Enter all-league receiver Isaiah Ross, who will likely serve as the new go-to threat. Ross had 512 receiving yards, 287 rushing yards and six combined touchdowns last season while doing double duty on defense as a safety.
11. SM NORTHWEST
One of the Cougars’ biggest strengths this season will be the 25-man senior class, which will be led by offensive and defensive lineman T.J. Hutton. He was an honorable mention All-Sunflower League selection last fall. Offensive lineman Neil Stimach, defensive linemen Brandon Smith and Kendall Spencer and linebackers Alex Guinn and Mitch Hodson return with starting experience.
12. SM NORTH
After having first-year coach Don Simmons depart this summer, the Indians promoted alumnus and veteran assistant coach Ben Bartlett to the top spot. Though the Indians finished 0-9 last year, there are a lot of good components back. Will Schneider, who started at quarterback as a freshman, and senior wide receiver Nick Perez will lead the returnees.