Here are some Kansas high school football players, teams and story lines to watch this season.
Reigning state champions
The Eastern Kansas League produced two state champions in 2016 — Mill Valley and Bishop Miege.
Miege is on a three-year tear in Class 4A-Division I that doesn’t look like it’ll stop anytime soon. This season is the final one for a group of seniors who started the streak in 2014. Among them are dual-threat quarterback Carter Putz, last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year for Kansas, who has tallied 6,451 passing yards and 86 touchdowns in his career, and linebacker Joe Watskey.
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One thing to keep in mind: The Stags are breaking in a pretty new offensive line, with three new starters, and a young receiving corps. It might be tough for them to outscore opponents 218-27 in the playoffs like they did last season.
Mill Valley won its second straight Class 5A title in a double-overtime thriller against Goddard, capping its first season in the EKL with a 9-4 record. The Jaguars’ offense shouldn’t miss a step, with senior quarterback Brody Flaming (2,700 yards passing with 33 touchdowns; 1,297 yards rushing with 6 touchdowns) and junior running back Cameron Young (13 touchdowns on 1,546 yards rushing) back on the field.
Wide receivers Evan Rice and Logan Talley, who each caught eight touchdown passes for a combined 1,218 yards, will round out Mill Valley’s attack.
Senior defensive end Ike Valencia is one of two returning defensive starters for Mill Valley. He totaled 51 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 7 1/2 sacks. Mill Valley will also count on junior safety Tanner Moore (42 tackles, 4 interceptions) in the secondary.
In more ways than one, this season will be a defining one for Blue Valley. Under first-year coach Allen Terrell, the Tigers have to shake off a runner-up finish in Class 6A while moving past the sudden death of coach Eric Driskell, who led the team for seven seasons.
Aquinas, meanwhile, lost to Mill Valley 14-13 in the sub-state championship despite outpacing Mill Valley on offense (437 yards) and limiting the eventual 5A champs to 200 total yards. Five turnovers cost Aquinas in the semifinal.
Alongside 18 returning starters, Aquinas will feature junior defensive back Jayden Russell, the second-ranked player in Kansas for the class of 2019 according to 24/7 Sports. Senior quarterback Will Swanson, who passed for 1,423 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 774 yards and 15 touchdowns, is also back.
Aquinas appears talented and experienced enough to dethrone Mill Valley, starting with a rematch on Sept. 29.
Lawrence Free State and Shawnee Mission East also will be throwing elbows in the Sunflower League in an attempt to climb back into the spotlight. Free State lost to eventual champion Derby in the substate championship, and SM East lost to Blue Valley in overtime in the same round.
Here are a few more players to watch in 2017.
▪ DE Miles Emery (Blue Valley North, senior), 6-5, 235. The Kansas commit is a three-star prospect ranked as Rivals’ 17th-best weakside defensive end. He is the No. 2-ranked player in the state for the class of 2018.
▪ QB Graham Mertz (Blue Valley North, junior), 6-4, 205. Playing behind Miege’s Putz, Mertz didn’t get a chance to start at the high school level. But he has already attracted Division I attention and figures to break out as a junior at BV North, especially with running back Grant Hamel (1,100 yards rushing, 300 yards receiving) at his disposal.
▪ LB/TE Jackson Heath (Blue Valley Northwest, senior), 6-4, 210. The fourth-ranked player in this Kansas recruiting class, Heath has not yet committed to a college and should receive even more Division I offers as the season goes along. He already has 15, including from Oregon State. He was a first-team All-State selection last year after making 78 tackles and hauling in 36 receptions for 592 yards and five touchdowns.
▪ TE/DE LeeRoi Johnson (Tonganoxie, senior), 6-2, 255. A first team All-State selection, Johnson has worked his way onto several coaches’ watch lists.
▪ WR/DB J.C. Watson (Basehor-Linwood, senior), 5-9, 175. The two-way player could be even more versatile for emerging Baseshor-Linwood. Last year he recorded 29 tackles and two interceptions while rushing for 215 yards. He also logged 294 yards receiving. This summer, he’s factored into the quarterback race, too.