The Vikings won the Shawnee Mission School District’s first state championship in 27 years last season, but replacing running back Brett Sterbach’s production won’t be easy. Still, led by quarterback A.J. Verdini and wide receiver Andre Maloney, a Kansas commit, there is plenty of returning talent at the skill positions. Of course, the Vikings’ true strength is its blockers, led by two-way returning starters Austin Chambers, Lee Spight, Rashawn Owens and Marquan Osbey. Linebackers Cooper Arner and Mitch Wade are also strengths.
2. LAWRENCE FREE STATE
The Firebirds lost some very good football players, but coach Bob Lisher is convinced that enough size and speed remains for his squad to compete with anyone in the state. It starts with senior free safety Joe Dineen, who also takes over at quarterback and has committed to Kansas. Free State returns three blockers — linemen Reid Buckingham and Tyler Sampson with tight end Zach Bickling — on offense along with a trio of linebackers — seniors Blake Winslow, Keith Loneker and Stan Skwarlo.
3. OLATHE NORTH
Running back Venus Triplett returns after rushing for 981 yards as a sophomore last year. He’s poised to become a star for the Eagles, who reached the playoffs in Gene Wier’s first season back at the helm despite a 1-5 record entering district play last season. Quarterback Cole Murphy was playing well before a mid-season injury. He’s back to lead the offense, while linebacker Jimmie Swain, who committed to TCU, is ready for his own breakout season as the leader on defense.
4. OLATHE EAST
Tight end Connor Alexander is the only blocker returning for the Hawks, but what Olathe East lacks in experience on the offensive line, it makes up for with speed to burn at the skill spots. Running backs Brandon Trinkle, Jalen Branson and Jordan Brown return along with wide receiver Nathan Guthrie. Seven Hawks return on defense, including Alexander (DE), Trinkle (LB), Guthrie (LB) and Branson (CB). Cornerback Braxton Love and linebackers Trenton Clark and Parker Evans are back as well.
5. OLATHE SOUTH
The Falcons don’t return many starters, but senior two-way lineman Braden Smith is a nice piece to build around. He’ll anchor the offensive line along with Chase Latscha. Wide receivers James Hart and Dominic Barbosa also return, while Smith and cornerback Thomas McCue are the lone returning starters on defense. Jake Seurer is expected to step in as quarterback, replacing his older brother, Frankie Seurer Jr. Finding replacements for linebackers Remington Whitley and Chase Hanson will be tougher.
6. SM EAST
Dustin Delaney’s flexbone offense shredded defenses in the Centennial League, but it remains to be seen how the run-heavy attack will fare now that he’s joined the Lancers from Emporia. It’ll be a big change offensively, which is fine considering that SM East doesn’t return any starters on that side of the ball. Defensive linemen Dominique Atkinson and Kyle Ball return on defense, along with linebacker Ryan Carter and defensive back Mitchell Tyler.
7. OLATHE NORTHWEST
Chip Sherman orchestrated a football renaissance during the last four years at SM East, but now he brings his passion (and potent offense) to the Ravens. He’ll have a few weapons by his side, including senior running back Cody Sestrich and four wide receivers who return with varsity experience. Still, a big and experienced defensive line, including senior Randal Byers and juniors Mitch Holsinger and Dean McCollum, might be Olathe Northwest’s strength.
8. SM SOUTH
The Raiders continue a slow creep from the dregs of the Sunflower League back to respectability and could be this year’s surprise overachiever. Coach Ryan Lonergan has experience back in the trenches, led by two-way starters Dametrius Berry and Nick Oliver. Meanwhile, defensive back Ra’Keim Abdul, who also takes over at running back, is among the league’s top talents. Stephen Erickson, Marcus Neal and Terry Adams return to the Raiders’ offensive line.
Brad Strauss has moved on to Northwest Missouri State, and he seems to have taken the Chesty Lions’ hopes for league and state titles with him. Lawrence doesn’t return much experience, but center Kyle Wittman and tackle Alex Jones provide a solid foundation for the offensive line. Linebacker Drew Green and safeties Kieran Severa and Tucker Sutter are back on defense. Alan Clothier steps into Strauss’ shoes as the quarterback in the Lions’ pistol spread attack.
After returning the Pioneers to respectability, coach Kevin Kopecky left for Eudora. With former Olathe South coach Mark Littrell taking the reins, Leavenworth should be just fine. Led by speedy running back Jason Randall, who topped 1,000 yards last season, the Pioneers could be the league’s surprise team. Junior Isaiah Ross is another supremely talented and fast player. Look for Landry Hodges to take over at quarterback, while twin linebackers Jarred and Jordan Donnelson lead the defense.
11. SM NORTHWEST
The Cougars ought to be solid on defense with Ariska Savior returning on the defensive line, Jake Horner back at linebacker and two talented defensive backs — Khalil Hattley and Jake Hoskins — returning as well. SM Northwest returns less experience on offense, where part-time running backs Devin Shockley and Jacob Gilliam lead the way. Coach Linn Hibbs and the Cougars have their work cut out for them entering his second season at the program’s helm.
12. SM NORTH
SM North has won 13 games in the last eight seasons, and is coming off an 0-9 campaign. Enter first-year coach Don Simmons, who has had success everywhere he’s been — Riverton, Independence, BV North and, most recently, Chanute. Look for returning two-way starters Jesse Patterson and Nick Perez to flourish in Simmons’ spread attack. Maceo Mitchell, Darrell Jackson and Alec Turnbull return on the offensive line, while nose tackle Blaze Nelson and linebackers Dakota Boyd and Jonathan Presler return on defense.