1. BLUE SPRINGS
Winners of the Big Six in 2011, the Wildcats return more playing experience than any other team in the league. With an abundance of offensive talent back for another year, the Wildcats’ spot atop the standings will rest on their defense, which struggled a year ago. Blue Springs has a more talented secondary with DaShaugn Terry and Donte Watkins back, and they will count on that duo to force turnovers.
Second place isn’t necessarily a bad omen. The Jaguars finished second in 2011 before peaking in the Class 6 state playoffs on their way to a title. As they did a year ago, the Jaguars will have to overcome a lack of previous playing time and improve as the season progresses. Blue Springs South returns only three starters — all offensive linemen — and has the tough task of finding a way to replace quarterback Connor Harris and tailback Steve Sullivan.
The Panthers have expectedly struggled in their adjustment to one of Missouri’s toughest conferences, but they appear ready to make a dent in the league standings. They return a pair of three-year starters on defense in middle linebacker Logan Smith and strong safety Mason Nowell, and twin brothers Ryan and Justin Thomas are two of four offensive linemen returning to open running lanes for leading rusher Aaron Russell.
The Blue Jays enjoyed a balanced offense last season, but turnover at the skill positions leave some rather large shoes to fill. Junior guard Jacob Francis, a second team all-state selection last year, and senior tackle Ben Laughlin will take on more responsibility as Liberty searches for a new offensive identity.
5. LEE’S SUMMIT
Size will be the biggest issue facing the Tigers, who struggled to stop the run in a conference full of talented tailbacks. If they reverse that trend in 2012, they will likely be thanking junior nose guard Chris Campbell, the teeth of the Lee’s Summit defense. Offensively, the Tigers get Colin Aubuchon back after he missed 2011 because of a shoulder injury. He will lead the way for an improving Casey Slaughter, who starts at running back.
6. LEE’S SUMMIT NORTH
The Broncos are set to put up big offensive numbers yet again this season, but it won’t mean much if they fail to improve defensively. They allowed more than 43 points per game in 2011, but they return three defensive linemen — Nick Cox, P.J. Seufert and Justin Lovelance — who provide reason for optimism. They are three of seven returning starters on defense.