1. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS
St. Thomas Aquinas is hungry, plain and simple. In his first season at Aquinas last year, coach Randy Dreiling led the Saints to the Kansas Class 5A state title game for the first time since 2008. With the players now accustomed to his system, opponents should be wary. Aquinas returns several important pieces from last year’s team, including running back James Cosentino and quarterback Karter Odermann.
2. BISHOP MIEGE
Coach Jon Holmes and the Stags havehit their stride the last two seasons, losing just two games. Miege won the Kansas Class 4A Division I state championship with an undefeated record last season. The team’s top returners on offense are running back Dawson Downing and Jafar Armstrong. Kaelin Key will lead the Stags’ defense.
3. BLUE VALLEY
The Tigers thrived last season in their first year in Kansas Class 6A. They advanced to the second round of the state tournament before falling to undefeated Olathe North. The Tigers have a strong group returning on offense, led by quarterback Colton McCumber and running backs AJ Totta and Will Evans.
4. BLUE VALLEY WEST
The Jaguars’ victory total took a dip last season, but they are poised to get back on track with five letter winners coming back on each side of the ball. Their top offensive returners are quarterback Nathan Wiles, who started most of last season, and versatile three-way player Mark Collins Jr., who lines up at receiver, quarterback and defensive back. He also is the team’s kicker.
5. BLUE VALLEY NORTHWEST
With a decade under his belt at BV Northwest, coach Mike Zegunis enters his 11th season with a new challenge. He returns just three offensive starters and will rely on a smaller than usual junior class. Zegunis will turn to veterans such as Max and Garrett Tierney for leadership, as well as Colin Kenney, Patrick Banning and Jack Knutson.
6. BLUE VALLEY SOUTHWEST
Longtime Spring Hill coach Anthony Orrick makes the jump to the EKL with a chance to help build a program on the rise. The Timberwolves, who started competing in 2010, have posted just one winning season. Returners such as Dylan Curry, Jon Meyer and Brett Basler will help ease the transition.
7. BLUE VALLEY NORTH
Coach Andy Sims is in a perfect position for growth in his second season with the Mustangs, returning all 11 starters on offense. Quarterback Joey Dolan and two of his top targets — Alex Blake and Josh Pederson — will lead the attack through the air. Cooper Lantefield and Carter Howes will drive the running game.
8. GARDNER EDGERTON
Coach Marvin Diener and the Trailblazers have their work cut out for them after a winless campaign last year. Two defending state champions on the schedule to start the season will be a gut check. The team’s biggest strength might be its experienced offensive and defensive lines, which return seven letter winners.
Offensive player to watch
Despite breaking his leg before the postseason and only playing nine games for the Saints last year, St. Thomas Aquinas running back James Cosentino helped set a single-season rushing record for the team. He rushed for 1,296 yards and 14 touchdowns in 177 carries.
Defensive player to watch
If Bishop Miege hopes to repeat as Kansas Class 4A Division I state champions, they will need another big year from defensive lineman Kaelin Key, who was selected first-team All-EKL last season. He registered 79 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and nine sacks.
It should be another tight race in the Eastern Kansas League this season. Each of the top three teams return several starters who could help them make a push at the league title, which Bishop Miege won with an undefeated record last season. St. Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Miege are formidable, with a slight edge going to Aquinas.