1. OLATHE SOUTH
Coming off the first Kansas 6A state title in their history, the Falcons hope to do it again and create a budding dynasty. Of course, that will be tough with Hutchinson and Gardner Edgerton moving into the state’s largest class. But with quarterback Frankie Seurer Jr. returning along with blue-chip junior lineman Braden Smith, there are pieces in place for another deep playoff run. Linebacker Remington Whitley and safety Dylan DeVries lead the defense.
All-everything quarterback/safety/return specialist Brad Strauss is back, and as long as he’s healthy, he gives the Chesty Lions a chance to win every week. With hulking running back Tyrone Jenkins and a steady stable of receivers that includes Erick Mayo and Drake Hofer, coach Dirk Wedd’s bunch could be Kansas 6A championship contenders if there are enough linemen to go with returning starter Kharon Brown.
3. SM WEST
Don’t sleep on the Vikings, who return nine starters on both sides of the ball from a 7-4 squad. SM West will be a seasoned group, led by running backs Torry Powell and Brett Sterbach. The line should also be a strength with Tanner Clark, Aaron Brown and mountainous junior Austin Chambers (6-5, 275) returning. On defense, Robert Rice leads the secondary and Jordan Neff returns at linebacker.
4. OLATHE EAST
Big things are expected from the Hawks, who went 9-3 last year, despite substantial holes left by graduation. Quarterback John Blazevic returns to lead the offense, which lost workhorses John Kelsh and Kendall Kelly. Running back Hayden Frazier will get the first crack at carrying the load. Frazier also is expected to contribute in the secondary, while fullback/linebacker Ryan Woodson returns on both sides of the ball as well.
5. SM EAST
The big offseason news for the Lancers was the addition of transfer quarterback Jordan Darling, who joins an already-talented group led by senior wide receiver/defensive back Connor Rellihan. Coach Chip Sherman’s team fell in a quarterfinal shootout with eventual Kansas 6A champion Olathe South, but should be better on defense with three senior linebackers — David and Sam Stewart with Patrick Blackburn — returning and David Sosna back in the secondary.
6. LAWRENCE FREE STATE
The Firebirds took some knocks with a young team last season and ultimately missed the playoffs, but don’t expect that to happen again. Quarterback/defensive back Kyle McFarland, who is among the more underrated players in the Sunflower League, is among 13 returning starters, including most of the offensive and defensive lines led by Cody Stanclift. Wide receiver Tye Hughes and defensive back Joe Dineen are big-time playmakers.
7. OLATHE NORTH
Gene Wier is back after nine seasons in Texas, but the league landscape has shifted dramatically since he’s been gone. Still, take tradition-rich Olathe North lightly at your own peril. Lineman Sean Ceballos and Ryan Garrett return to lead an undersized offensive line, while Kai Rowden is back at tight end with Dontez Sanchez at wide receiver. Venus Triplett steps in as potentially the next star running back for the Eagles.
Coming off only their second-ever playoff berth, the Pioneers are riding high in 2012. Led by senior two-way lineman Nathan Butler, a two-time state champion wrestler, look for Leavenworth to win more than two games. Running back Jason Randall is poised for a monster season, while quarterback Judson Cole also returns with top target Eli Keppler. Linebacker Josh Ammel and cornerback Isaiah Ross lead the defense.
9. SM SOUTH
The Raiders, 2-7 last year, return the league’s leading rusher, Gabe Guild, who racked up 1,650 yards and 14 touchdowns. Three starting offensive linemen — Jeramie Fischer, Dametrius Berry and Stephen Erickson — are also back along with tight end Nick Oliver. Fischer and Guild lead a defense that returns eight players, including defensive backs Ra’Keim Abdul and John Eric Kelley. Quarterback Jon Prueter has big shoes to fill replacing Alex Forslund.
10. OLATHE NORTHWEST
The Ravens went 5-5 last season and could have been even better, but duplicating such success will be tough with precious little returning at the skill spots. Coach Todd Dain has four offensive linemen — seniors Cole Bouwens, Brock Droescher, Tyler Moffat and Jordan Johnson — and three defensive linemen — senior Connor Holsinger and juniors Trevor Bowley and Brian Goines — back. Running back Cody Sestrich must step up along with wide receiver Nathan Power.
11. SM NORTH
Line play ought to be a strength for coach Dennis Grayless’ team, which returns seniors Will Carter, Anthony Naylor, Andrew Nichols and Harley Ludwig along with uber-athletic junior Maceo Mitchell and senior tight end Armando Contreras. Coupled with improved team speed, optimism runs high for the Indians, especially if a trio of running backs — seniors Henry Bell and Caleb Denman with junior Jesse Patterson — turn into game-breakers.
12. SM NORTHWEST
Starting anew under Linn Hibbs, who led Wellington to the Kansas 4A state title twice, the Cougars refuse to look at the season as a rebuilding year. Still, with a new coach and so many new players, that’s what it looks like. Tight end/defensive lineman Josh Zdeb and fullback/linebacker Connor Jarman return for SM Northwest, which turns the offense over to quarterback Lucas Karlin. Jake Filsinger should make a name for himself in the trenches.