Kansas City-area high school football teams on the Kansas side begin their season this week. Here are five questions regarding teams, players and the outlook for the next three months.
1. How will the new-look Eastern Kansas League shake out?
St. James Academy and Kansas Class 5A defending state champion Mill Valley join the Eastern Kansas League this season. Mill Valley had been in the Kaw Valley League until last year, when they played football as an independent school. St. James has been an independent program since its inception.
Both had successful 2015 seasons as unattached schools. Mill Valley went 12-1 and won the Kansas Class 5A state title. St. James finished 9-2, losing to St. Thomas Aquinas in the Kansas Class 5A quarterfinals.
The day-in and day-out competition of the EKL should keep both rookie teams on their toes, but each has a shot at making an impact in the league. Mill Valley is riding the momentum of its best season in history, and St. James has two of the top high school football players in the Kansas City area on its squad (more on that later).
Blue Valley, St. Thomas Aquinas and reigning state champion Bishop Miege will all be tough to top this season in the Eastern Kansas League.
2. Can any team top Shawnee Mission East in the Sunflower League?
Shawnee Mission East returns 17 starters from a team that lost to Olathe North in the Kansas Class 6A sectional playoffs last season. The Lancers are chomping at the bit to get back to the level of its 2014 state championship season.
But several other teams in the league look strong. Rival Shawnee Mission West, for one, is a squad which will use a jumbo 23-man senior class to build on its 7-3 record last year. Olathe North lost most of the group that went 10-2 last season, but looks poised to have another solid season behind a steady defense.
Meanwhile, Lawrence is ready to avenge last season’s bitterness, when the Chesty Lions’ undefeated run ended in the Kansas Class 6A sectionals with a loss to Blue Valley after a 9-0 regular season.
3. Who will finish the season as Kansas’ top college prospect?
Bishop Miege has three of the Kansas City area’s top high school football recruits, according to Jeremy Crabtree, senior writer at espn.com. They are Missouri wide receiver commit Jafar Armstrong, Iowa cornerback commit Djimon Colbert and offensive lineman Colin Grunhard, who is still figuring out his college destination.
Other Johnson County-area players on Crabtree’s list of of top 15 KC-area recruits are South Dakota defensive line commit Peter Klug of Blue Valley North; Sammy Wheeler, a Kansas State commit who plays quarterback at St. James Academy; and Lawrence Free State’s Jay Dineen, a University of Kansas linebacker commit.
Also on Crabtree’s recruit list is Angel Dominguez of St. Thomas Aquinas, a defensive lineman who is considered a top-10 player in the state. He was poised for a strong senior season before heading to Iowa State in 2017. But Dominguez tore his ACL and MCL in a late August scrimmage and will miss the season.
4. Can two returning state champions keep up their winning ways?
Mill Valley, Kansas Class 5A defending state champion, will have to withstand the pummeling of a tougher conference schedule if it hopes to win two straight state titles. The Jaguars’ schedule features plenty of challenges, including the following games: Friday vs. St. James Academy, Sept. 23 vs. Blue Valley, Sept. 30 at St. Thomas Aquinas and Oct. 7 at Bishop Miege.
Bishop Miege, Kansas class 4A Division I two-time defending state champion, looks poised to add another state title trophy this season. The Stags return what many consider the two best prospects in the state of Kansas in Jafar Armstrong and Djimon Colbert. They also have a returning starting quarterback, Carter Putz, who threw for more than 3,000 yards last season.
5. How will the new Kansas Class 6A and 5A playoff format affect the regular season?
With the dissolution of districts and the introduction of an overall seeding system for the postseason, most coaches believe the competition in Kansas will be even stiffer in the state’s two biggest classes.
Much like the bygone BCS system in college football fostered an “every week counts” mentality, Kansas high school football is hoping for something similar.
In previous years, teams were divvied into four-school districts. Each team ended the regular season with a round-robin slate of district games, and the top two finishers in each four-team district moved on to the playoffs.
But this season, districts have been eradicated. Teams will play eight-game regular seasons, then be divided into “east” and “west” sections of the state. The Kansas State High School Activities Association will seed teams at the end of the season, one through 16 on each side. The season’s Week 9, previously part of the regular season, will now serve as the de facto first week of the postseason, where everyone is guaranteed a game.
Seeding will be based on winning percentages, with tiebreakers coming via head-to-head results, then margin of victory (combined throughout the season, with no team receiving more than 21 points per game, even if they won by more). The team with the better seed will always serve as the host.
With the new seeding process, though, teams that play tougher schedules may find themselves with worse seeds.
The new format, which was originally proposed by the Wichita City and Sunflower leagues, was approved for a two-year cycle. After that, the situation will be reevaluated to determine if it will continue after 2017.
Despite the March Madness-style postseason, the successful teams will still be those who can put together long strings of wins in the regular season. As teams fight for seeding, look for competition to ratchet up towards the end of October.