Wednesday, July 31, 2013

2013 Sunflower League Preseason Power Rankings

SM West enters 2013 as the Sunflower League favorite. Photo Elaine Ferguson.
1. SM West
Head coach: Tim Callaghan (10 years, 80-28)
Last season: 12-1, Class 6A Champions
Schedule Strength: 58.5 / 132.5

With big accomplishments come big expectations, and suffice to say the defending Class 6A state champions will have a sizable target on their backs throughout the 2013 season.  Fortunately for the Vikings, they look like a team that's well-prepared to meet those expectations, returning a roster that is stacked from top to bottom with as much talent and experience as anybody in the state.

SM West's two most notable returning players are Andre Maloney (6-3, 185) and Austin Chambers (6-5, 300).  Both are returning All-State honorees, and both have been heavily recruited (Chambers has committed to BYU and Maloney to Kansas).  Maloney doubles as a cornerback and wide receiver, while Chambers holds down the Vikings' right tackle position and plays nose tackle on defense.  After stellar junior campaigns, the two players will be the focal points in the Vikings' bid for a repeat state title.

Beginning on offense, returning at the quarterback position is AJ Verdini (6-5, 190) who threw for 1,223 yards and 11 touchdowns as junior.  He'll be flanked on the outsides by wide receivers Mitchell Wade (6-2, 175), Justin Hobbs (6-4, 180) and Maloney, all of whom have ample experience.  On the offensive line the Vikings return Chambers in addition to guards Lee Spight (6-1, 225) and Marquan Osbey (5-11, 210), while junior Carter Pembridge (6-4, 240) will fill in the tackle spot opposite Chambers after playing quite a bit as a sophomore.

The anchor of the defense will be Chambers at the nose tackle position.  Spight, a returning first team all-league honoree who recorded 10 sacks as a junior, returns at one of the end spots, while Pembridge is slotted at the other end position.  Osbey will return as an inside linebacker alongside Rashaun Owens (5-11, 190), and outside linebacker Cooper Arner (6-1, 185). Those three combined to record 290 tackles and six takeaways last season.  The secondary will return Maloney at one of the cornerback slots, while junior Isaiah Macklin (5-9, 160) will likely fill in the other.  Those two combined for six interceptions last year.

The most pressing concern for SM West will be filling the void at the running back position left by the graduation of All-State running back Brett Sterbach.  Sterbach rushed for 2,228 yards and 22 touchdowns last fall, so it won't be an easy task.  Juanyae Stallings (6-1, 185) will certainly be in the mix at the running back position, but don't be shocked if the Vikings use a multiple running back approach in 2013.

Key Stretch: While SM West has one of the league's most favorable schedules (eight of their nine games are at SMSD venues), their first four weeks are crucial.  Games against SM South and Olathe South are by no means "gimmes", and their week three matchup with Lawrence could be a trap game.  In week four they visit Free State in what could be their most significant challenge since the state game against Hutchinson.

Fast Fact: The Vikings are attempting to become the first Sunflower League team to win a state title in consecutive seasons since Olathe North last accomplished the feat in 2003.

2. Lawrence Free State
Head Coach: Bob Lisher (16 years, 94-70)
Last season: 10-2, Sub-State
Schedule Strength: 71 / 132.5

If any team can match the returning star power of SM West, it's Free State.  Through the years Bob Lisher has fielded some incredible teams, but this year's group may take the cake when all is said and done.

Khadre Lane. LJWorld.
Taking the reins at quarterback will be Joe Dineen (6-2, 205), a Kansas commit whose name is rarely spoken without an accompanying "Simone hopeful" tag.  Dineen's top returning receivers are Blake Winslow (6-1, 215) and Khadre Lane (6-5, 190) -- an outstanding duo whose combination of strength, speed and athleticism will match that of any other receiving tandem in the state.

On defense the Firebirds will be led by linebacker Keith Loneker (6-1, 210) who recorded 87 tackles last fall.  He'll be playing alongside fellow linebackers Stan Skwarlo (5-11, 185), Carson Bowen (6-1, 180) and Winslow, in addition to Dineen at the safety.  The Firebirds lost key defensive players such as Cody Stanclift, Corban Schmidt and Kyle McFarland to graduation, but don't expect production to change much if at all.  The Firebirds plug new players into their 3-5-3 scheme year after year and the results never change -- they force turnovers in bunches and play as fast as any team in the league.

The lone jolt to the Firebird's momentum this offseason came when lineman and Northwestern commit Fred Wyatt (6-4, 270) suffered a torn ACL that effectively eliminated his chances of suiting up for the Firebirds in his senior year.  The loss is substantial, as the Free State offensive and defensive lines -- which were seen as the team's biggest questions marks, even with Wyatt -- are now a larger concern.  The Firebirds won't be able to replace Wyatt, but Free State is hopeful the younger players will be able to develop more quickly and be even better prepared for the late-season grind.

Free State also has other odds and ends which will help to round out their roster.  Long snapper Reid Buckingham (6-2, 240) is ranked as one of the 15 high school long snappers nationally.  Also keep an eye out for an up-and-coming Sunflower League legacy: sophomore Bryce Torneden (5-10, 165), the younger brother of 2010 graduate Camren, was widely regarded as the top freshman in the Sunflower League last fall.  He could make an immediate impact on the basis of his speed and agility alone.

Key Stretch: The Firebirds have a brutal four-week stretch from late September through early October. During that time they host Olathe East and SM West, then go on the road to play Olathe North and SM East.  If they can go 4-0 during that span of games an undefeated regular season would be likely.

Fast Fact: Free State's three Sub-State appearances since 2006 are tied with Olathe North for the most of any league team over the past seven seasons.

3. Olathe North
Head coach: Gene Wier (23 years, 191-43)
Last season: 3-7, Regionals
Schedule Strength: 76 / 132.5

It didn't take long (only half a season, really) but it appears as though wily veteran Gene Wier has his program back on track.  The Eagles began the 2012 season 1-5 before closing out at 2-2, including an upset of defending state champion Olathe South in districts.  The win put Olathe North in the playoffs, only to be blown out the next week by Free State.  However, I suggest the victory over Olathe South rekindled the winning spirit back into the Olathe North program -- something we should start seeing the impact of this fall.

Olathe North's bread-and-butter will be their rushing attack, led by junior running back sensation, Venus Triplett (5-8, 175).  Put it this way, Triplett was getting on-air shoutouts on the Metro Sports Game of the Week while he was still in junior high.  And we saw a glimpse of what he had to offer last season as he carried the ball 181 times for 948 yards and 11 touchdowns.  This year should really be his breakout season in the Sunflower League.

Triplett will be the focal point of a roster that is still young, but extremely talented.  Junior Cole Murphy (6-2, 180) started the early portion of last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.  He'll be back at full strength this fall and his experience should negate any major early learning curves. His top targets will be Mauricio Chio (6-0, 190), who caught three touchdowns passes and recorded 260 receiving yards last fall, and the ballyhooed junior Josh Moore (6-6, 255).  Moore caught 13 passes for 208 yards and three touchdown last year, but those numbers could easily double or triple if he plays to his potential.  Athletically he's one of the most gifted players in the league (he's very similar to former Free State Firebird Christian Ballard), it's really just a matter of effort and consistency with him.

Moore will be integral along the the Eagles' defensive front as well.  He'll lead the charge from the defensive tackle position, while behind him transfer Jimmie Swain (6-3, 225) and junior Marcel Spears (6-0, 200) will be expected to lead the defense. Swain played at Olathe North as a sophomore before transferring to Lee's Summit High School last fall.  He's back, and he brings with him FBS offers from Michigan, Oregon, Stanford and TCU, among others, and a tag as one of the top prep linebackers in the country.  Spears had a solid sophomore campaign as a middle linebacker and should have another outstanding year.  Defensive back Kai Rowden (6-2, 185) is yet another extremely gifted athlete on the Olathe North roster who'll be expected to play a key role this fall.

Key Stretch: The Eagles' district will be gut-check time.  They start by facing Olathe Northwest on the road at CBAC, follow that up with a visit to Gardner-Edgerton to face Traevohn Wrench and Co., and finish at ODAC against an Olathe South squad seeking major revenge from last year.

Fast Fact: Olathe North lost seven games last season.  From 1995 to 2002 (the final eight seasons of Wier's first tenure at the school) the Eagles only lost five games.

4. Olathe East
Head coach: Jeff Meyers (21 years, 153-64)
Last season: 6-5, Sectionals
Schedule Strength: 73.5 / 132.5

Slotting Olathe East anywhere below the top third of the preseason rankings would be doing Jeff Meyers and his program an injustice.  The Hawks have had winning records in 13 consecutive seasons dating back to 2000.  Last fall it looked like the streak would end as Olathe East sat at 1-4 through five weeks of play.  Lo and behold they rattled off five wins to reach Sectionals and finish above .500. And besides, while this year's team looks young on paper, they're loaded with speed at the skill positions and should be among the league's best teams by season's end.

Jalen Branson. OE Booster Club.
The Hawks' two most notable returning players are Brandon Trinkle (5-10, 175) and junior Jalen Branson (5-10, 180). Trinkle was a second team all-league selection last fall as a returner, averaging 12 yards per punt return including one touchdown.  He's also a talented outside linebacker.  Branson came on strong in the latter portion of 2012, rushing for 234 yards and two touchdowns in addition to recording two interceptions as a defensive back.  He has the makings of a league-headliner type of player in the coming seasons.

At linebacker, Olathe East returns Trenton Clark (5-10, 195), a two-year starter who notched 59 tackles and one interception last year, in addition to Nathan Guthrie (6-0, 210) who added 45 tackles, an interception and two forced fumbles as a junior.  Add in Trinkle's experience (36 tackles and one interception from a season ago) and the Hawks will have one of the league's best linebacking cores.

Many other experienced players will play key roles for Olathe East  this fall.  One of them is Braxton Love (6-0, 175), who recorded  27 tackles and five pass break-ups last fall as a safety.  Tight end Connor Alexander (6-3, 215) has shown flashes of being an all-league type of talent.  Jalyn McCray (5-11, 180) is another talented athlete who will help to round out the Hawks' attack on both offense and defense.  Olathe East's main question mark will be the quarterback spot, where Meyers has yet to name a starter in a battle between Connor Leach (5-11, 170) and junior Chase Miller (6-1, 185).

Key Stretch: The first three weeks of the season will give us a solid idea of what to expect from this year's team. They open on the road at Olathe North in week one, face Olathe Northwest at CBAC in week two, then travel to Free State in week three. If they can come away 3-0 or 2-1 they might have the momentum (and schedule) to win out in the regular season.

Fast Fact: Olathe East's 88 victories since the 2003 season are the most of any Sunflower League team over the past decade.

5. SM East
Head coach: Dustin Delaney (First year)
Last season: 7-3, Regionals
Schedule Strength: 72 / 132.5

How hard is it to convert a team's offensive identity over the course of one (shortened) summer? We're going to find out this fall as SM East and new head coach Dustin Delaney debut a Hutchinson-based flexbone offense just nine months after the the Lancers closed out 2012 as the league's third most pass-happy offense.  It will be a dramatic overhaul but Delaney's successes with his teams at Emporia High School suggests he'll find a way.

Christian Blessen.
The Lancers most notable returner is defensive tackle Dominique Atkinson (5-10, 290).  Atkinson earned first team all-league honors as a junior and will be one of the league's most disruptive forces.  SM East also returns junior Kyle Ball (6-2, 225) at defensive end and linebacker Ryan Carter (5-10, 200). The two added 53 and 51 tackles last season, respectively (Ball was one of the most impressive sophomore defenders we saw in 2012). In the secondary Mitchell Tyler (5-9, 170) will help stabilize efforts.  He returns after recording 35 tackles and one interception a season ago.

Offensively, Christian Blessen (6-4, 205) will take over as quarterback.  Blessen started as a wide receiver last fall and caught 16 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns -- suggesting he's no stranger to performing well under the luminous Friday night lights.

Along the offensive line, SM East returns Sage Thompson (6-2, 265) along with Atkinson, to create a formidable one-two punch that employed solid success in the trenches last year.  With an increased emphasis on the run game, Thompson and Atkinson will be essential in setting the offensive tone from the outset.

Key Stretch: The Lancers' toughest stretch comes in weeks three, four and five when they face Olathe North, SM South and Free State.  Their schedule in the early portion of the season doesn't look too daunting, but this three week stretch will tell us what we need to know about the team.

Fast Fact: SM East's combined 100 sports state titles are more than any other SMSD school (SMN, 25; SMNW, 65; SMS, 60; SMW, 14) but they're the only school of the five without a state title in football.

6. SM South
Head coach: Ryan Lonergan (Two years, 6-12)
Last season: 4-5
Schedule Strength: 75 / 132.5

SM South has slowly but steadily improved over the last 18 games under head coach Ryan Lonergan.  In 2011 they were a wildly inconsistent team that lost their first three games by a total of 10 points, and they finished the season 2-7.  Last year they took their game up a notch (and by that I mean they beat the teams they were favored to beat), going 4-5.  A winning season -- which would be the first for the program since the 1990s -- would be marked improvement over where the program stood just three years ago. The good news for the Raiders is that they return a stable of skilled players, which includes perhaps as much athleticism at the skill positions as any team in the league.

The Raiders will be led by Ra'Keim Abdul (6-0, 195), a running back/defensive back combo who grades out as a fringe D1 type of player.  He's also a skilled return man who's shown the ability to take any punt the distance.  Joining Abdul in the secondary will be junior Dainan Swoope (5-11, 180), who recorded 38 tackles and two interceptions as a sophomore.  Junior DeAngelo Bruster (5-10, 175) saw limited action as a sophomore, but he could make the jump into a starting role as a junior.  In addition to those three, the Raiders have as much depth in the secondary as anyone and competition will be fierce for playing time.

SM South's linebacking and defensive lines will be bolstered by the trio of defensive end Rasheed Brady (6-1, 210), linebacker Stephen Erickson (6-1, 225) and junior linebacker Zach Gerber (6-2, 220). Those three combined for 169 tackles last year and their experience could make the Raiders one of the best teams in the league at defending the run.

Offensively there are some question marks, including who will replace quarterback Jon Preuter and career 3,000-yard rusher Gabe Guild.  The Raiders do return some punch with one of the league's best offensive lineman in Dametrius Berry (6-5, 270) and a very talented tight end Nick Oliver (6-5, 215), among other offensive talents like Jawann Stennis (5-9, 160) and Abdul, but expect the team to rely on the strength of its defense as it irons out the offensive side of the football early on.  One thing we do know is the Raiders have talent and finding the right pieces offensively shouldn't take long.

Key Stretch: The Raider's regular season will be judged by how they do in district play.  The slate calls for a home game against Blue Valley Northwest, a game at Blue Valley North and a finale at home against Olathe East. Going 3-0 would almost certainly guarantee the program its first winning record overall in a long time (and playoffs), while 2-1 wouldn't be too shabby either, basically guaranteeing a playoff berth.

Fast Fact: The Raiders are looking for their first winning season since the mid-1990s.  Since 2001, SM South has won between one and four games every season, but never more and never less.

7. Olathe South
Braden Smith.
Head coach: Jeff Gourley (5 years, 31-20)
Last season: 5-4
Schedule Strength: 77 / 132.5

Heading into last season, on the heels of the school's first state title, Olathe South was considered by most to be the favorite to repeat as 6A state champions.  After starting the season 3-0, the Falcons went into a tailspin losing four of their last six games, including two district losses that left them out of the playoffs.  The end of the 2012 season also meant the exit of a very talented senior class.  While the Falcons won't enter 2013 with the same lofty expectations they had last year, they'll still be a club to be reckoned with.

Olathe South's headliner is Braden Smith (6-7, 295), a matchup nightmare along the trenches who basically has his pick of any college program in  the country.  Smith is one of maybe two or three lineman in the state who can single-handedly change the entire outcome of a game (along with SM West's Chambers and Hiawatha's Peyton Newell), and on a national level there may not be a better high school offensive lineman -- he's just that good.  Rest assured, Olathe South will exploit any advantage he can provide for them during the season.

Another returning standout is cornerback Thomas McCue (5-11, 170) who developed into one of the league's most solid cornerbacks last year, recording 42 tackles, 10 pass deflections, one interception and one defensive touchdown. He has a nose for the ball and he's a fun player to watch.

Two other players to keep an eye on are Dresden Wilbur (5-8, 170) and junior Jake Seurer (6-0, 170).  Wilbur saw limited action as a junior -- mostly on kick returns -- but his 100-meter times during track and field this past spring were the best of any returning football player.  He's a wildcard, but Olathe South needs replacements at the skill positions and he could make a big impact.  Seurer is the younger brother of Frankie, Olathe South's starting quarterback the past three years.  Jake saw time in the Falcon's secondary last fall and he'll continue with those duties, in addition to likely taking the reins at the quarterback position.

Key Stretch: The question everyone's asking is how Olathe South's going to respond to last year's 2-4 slide to end the season. Their first four games -- home against Lawrence, on the road at SM West and Leavenworth, then home against SM South -- will provide an excellent synopsis.

Fast Fact: Olathe South has made four state title game appearances since 1999 ('99, '04, '07, '11), second to only Olathe North over the last 15 years.

8. Olathe Northwest
Head coach: Chip Sherman (First year)
Last season: 2-7
Schedule Strength: 86 / 132.5

It's been quite the offseason for the Ravens.  Late in the spring Todd Dain, the only coach in the history of the program, resigned to take an administrative role with the school.  Olathe Northwest then brokered a deal with SM East head coach Chip Sherman to leave the Lancers and head out west to join the Ravens.  It was a whirlwind, but it worked out, and the Ravens look to be in a good position as a program going forward.

Sherman's spread offensive approach is similar to what Olathe Northwest has run the past few years so it should be an easy transition offensively.  The talent the Ravens return will also help out substantially.  Their top player is Chase Gitlin (6-6, 215) a hybrid tight end with excellent speed who can stretch any defense.  Their other top returning receivers are Nathan Power (6-0, 185) and junior Manny Psihountas (5-11, 165). Those three combined to catch an astounding 126 passes for 1,545 yards last season.  They could be the league's top receiving trio in 2013.

The likely signal caller distributing the ball will be junior Adam Harter (6-2, 210), a dual-threat quarterback who showed excellent potential as a sophomore. At tailback, Cody Sestrich (5-10, 180) returns after recording 250 rushing yards and four touchdowns as a junior.

The real question marks arise on the defensive side of the football, which has been the Ravens' Achilles heel the past few seasons.  Chiron Chappell (6-0, 160) returns at defensive back after recording 42 tackles and one interception last year, while returning juniors Eli Pruss (5-10, 180) and Mitch Holsinger (6-2, 245) combined for 78 tackles a season ago. Junior Zee Pinkerton (6-0, 155) came on strong last season from the cornerback position, and he has ton of potential at the spot going forward.

Those four will provide a solid foundation for what Sherman wants to mold the defense into.  Another player to keep an eye on is junior Randal Byers (6-5, 300) a defensive tackle who recorded 29 tackles including five tackles for loss.  Expect Sherman to use Byers' size advantage to clog up the middle similar to how he used Dominique Atkinson at SM East.

Key Stretch: The Raven's district (which also features Gardner-Edgerton, Olathe North and Olathe South) is intriguing on many levels.  Olathe Northwest will probably go through an adjusting period with Sherman early on, but they should be clicking on all cylinders come district play (see: SM East's late-season surge in Sherman's first year there in 2009). The battle to get out of that district alive will be a fun one (for outsiders).

Fast Fact: Since Olathe Northwest's inaugural varsity football season (2004), the Ravens and SM South are the only two league schools without a winning record in any season.

9. Lawrence
Alex Jones. LJWorld.
Head coach: Dirk Wedd (13 years, 75-63)
Last season: 8-3, Sectionals
Schedule Strength: 92.5 / 132.5

Rarely do you see a team suffer as many key losses to graduation as what the Chesty Lions are facing.  Starting quarterback -- gone.  Starting running back, top three receivers, three offensive lineman, top defensive lineman, top two linebackers, and the entire secondary -- wiped clean. Not to mention no semblance of a returning kicker or punter.  On paper Lawrence looks like a team that will endure major growing pains early on in 2013.  The games don't have playoff considerations until late in the season, and by that time LHS could be a completely different team.  But early, it could be a challenge.

The Chesty Lions' top returning talent on offense is offensive tackle Kyle Wittman (6-2, 275) a versatile lineman who garnered second team all-league honors as a junior. Also returning along the offensive line will be Alex Jones (6-3, 265), who should also help to provide stability.  Replacing Sunflower League legend Brad Strauss at the quarterback position will be either Tucker Sutter (5-11, 175) -- a player who didn't throw a pass last season but did manage an 80-yard touchdown run while filling in at the end of a game -- or sophomore Alan Clothier (5-11, 180).  Whoever the new starter is, they'll have some big shoes to fill.

LHS returns more punch on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker Drew Green (5-10, 210) returns after recording 75 tackles and an interception last fall. He'll be joined by Kieran Severa (6-1, 190) who notched 51 tackles, 6.5 sacks and one interception in 2012.  Sutter, who managed 40 tackles and one interception last year, will likely be slotted at the safety position.  Wittman is slotted to start along the defensive line as well.

Key Stretch: The Chesty Lions don't have the world's easiest schedule, but their district foes will make up for that.  While their finale against Free State looks like an uphill battle (at this point), their games against Leavenworth and Wyandotte present more evenly matched opponents.  Two wins and you're in.

Fast Fact: Lawrence's 10 state titles are the most of any school in the state of Kansas -- the crazy thing is that they've only captured nine Sunflower League titles.

10. Leavenworth
Head coach: Mark Littrell (First year)
Last season: 5-4
Schedule Strength: 89.5 / 132.5

Leavenworth's former head coach Kevin Kopecky departed to take the head job at Eudora High School during the offseason.  For Leavenworth, coaching departures are the norm (the school has had five head coaches since 2005), but the Kopecky loss stung because of the way he'd turned around the program. The Pioneers were fortunate to find perhaps the best imaginable replacement in Mark Littrell. Littrell, just five years removed from his time in the same position at Olathe South, is a seasoned veteran in the league with three state title appearances to his name.  If anyone can continue the progress Kopecky started, it's Littrell.

Jason Randall. LJWorld.
The Pioneers return a solid core of talent and looking at their district, Leavenworth will be in the thick of it to make the playoffs.  It all starts with running back Jason Randall (5-10, 185), who earned first team all-league honors last season after rushing for 1,030 yards and nine touchdowns. Randall is perceived by many as the top returning running back in the league and he'll certainly be primed for the limelight considering this will be his fourth season as a varsity starter.

Junior Landry Hodges (6-0, 175) will most likely get the nod at the quarterback spot after passing for 226 yards and two touchdowns as the second-string quarterback last year.  Speedster junior Isaiah Ross (5-10, 170) -- arguably the fastest player in the league -- should also be able to make quite the impact, both running the ball and catching passes, and also on returns.

Defensively the Pioneers will rely heavily on the Donnelson Twins, Jarred (6-2, 225) and Jordan (6-1, 225).  The two linebackers combined to total 158 tackles in just nine games last year (Jordan was among the league leaders through the regular season).  Kris Messer (5-10, 240) will work to make up some of the production along the defensive line that was lost with the graduation of Da'Quan Blake.

Key Stretch: Leavenworth's first four games are the opportunity of a lifetime for the program to establish a solid identity going forward.  A home game against SM East (new coach), followed by homes games against SM North and Olathe South, before a road contest at SM Northwest (three teams with a combined record of 7-20 last year) could conceivably produce a 4-0 record to begin the season.

Fast Fact: The Pioneers won the same amount of games in 2012 (4) as the program had won in the 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons combined.

11. SM Northwest
Head coach: Linn Hibbs, (One year, 2-7)
Last season: 2-7
Schedule Strength: 68 / 132.5

Season one of the Linn Hibbs era had its ups (a week one upset victory over Olathe North) and its downs (a soul-killing six-game losing streak in the middle of the season) but as a rule of thumb, you can't judge what a coach can do with a program after one season.  Hibbs' lofty coaching resume suggests the program should start making progress this season -- at the very least being competitive in every game.

Two of the Cougars top returning players are defensive backs Khalil Hattley (5-9, 165) and Jake Hoskins (5-10, 190).  Hattley recorded 26 tackles and one interception last season and his ball skills at the cornerback spot will make him a pain in the neck for opposing quarterbacks.  Hoskins quietly logged three interceptions to go along with 58 tackles last fall and he may be the league's best safety behind Joe Dineen.  Those two will ensure the Cougars will have one of the league's better pass defenses.

Also returning on defense, linebacker Jake Horner (6-1, 200) managed 56 tackles, one forced fumble and two takeaways in his junior campaign.  On the defensive line, Ariska Savior (6-0, 290) added 61 tackles and 3.5 sacks last year.  Players like Hattley, Hoskins, Horner and Savior means SM Northwest will have a defense with solid experience and that's a luxury they didn't have going into last season.

Offensively the Cougars will be green, but a few returning players who saw solid time last fall should lessen the early jolt.  Running backs Devin Shockley (5-10, 185)  and Jacob Gilliam (5-6, 170) combined to rush for 493 yards and three touchdowns in backup roles in 2012, and both will be important pieces offensively going forward. The quarterback position remains in limbo, although Horner may be the favorite to take over come the start of the season.

Key Stretch: Weeks three, four and five will provide us with a good window of what to expect from SM Northwest in the final month of the season.  The Cougars match up with SM South, Leavenworth and Lawrence during that stretch, with all three games in SMSD stadiums. A 2-1 record could be a must in terms of creating momentum for the program heading into a challenging district.

Fast Fact: The Cougars' two victories in 2012 marked just the second time the program won less than three games in a single season in the last 15 years.

12. SM North
Head coach: Don Simmons (First year)
Last season: 0-9
Schedule Strength: 86.5 / 132.5

There's no sense in sugar-coating anything about the state of SM North's football program.  For the last nine seasons the program's been a train wreck on the field.  In that nine-year time frame they've only once won more than two games (they went 3-6 in 2008) and only once have they qualified for the playoffs (an easy district gave the Indians a playoff berth on the heels of a 2-7 regular season in 2011).  Things hit rock bottom -- on the field -- last season when the program finished winless at 0-9.  Following the season Dennis Grayless resigned as head coach. However, his replacement Don Simmons looks like a superb coach for the job.

Simmons brings a winner's mentality to SM North.  He went a combined 37-10 at Blue Valley North (a school whose football program has been terrible since his departure) from 1997 to 2001, before posting a 65-32 record the past nine years at Chanute, with playoff berths in all nine seasons.  Most importantly, Simmons is a seasoned veteran who knows how to establish and build a solid program.  SM North's past two coaches (Ryan Majors and Grayless) were first-time head coaches who struggled to put together success with any consistency.

As far as talent goes, Simmons will be working with a relatively unknown group of players.  The Indians only had two honorable mention All-Sunflower league selections last fall, and they were both seniors.  The one returning player of note is running back Jesse Patterson (6-0, 180) who rushed for 411 yards last season and will probably be carrying the load again this year.

Key Stretch: The Indians play each of the top six teams in the Preseason Power Rankings, so their schedule doesn't do them any favors in year one under Simmons. The two games to circle are their week eight and nine tilts against SM Northwest and SM East. The first is the school's biggest rivalry, the Hula Bowl, and the second is a Nut Cup matchup. Win either game (or both) and the program will have plenty of momentum regardless of when they head into the offseason.

Fast Fact: SM North is 1-17 in their last 18 away games dating back to week three of 2009.

Disclaimer and Footnotes: All player names are accompanied by their heights and weights.  If I mispelled anyone's name, please shoot me an email so I can correct the mispelling.  Current players whose classification's are not listed, are seniors, while classification is provided for all those players who are not going to be seniors (i.e., junior Venus Triplett).  Many times players move or transfer during the offseason and for this reason it's extremely difficult to be 100% accurate when listing notable returning players (Leavenworth is notorious for this). Another disclaimer: star players will inevitably emerge who weren't even listed in this post.  It happens every single season.  So while inclusion of one's name in the Preseason Power Rankings is typically a good indicator that said player will have a good season, exclusion doesn't really mean anything besides the fact that a player didn't have a major impact on the league scene last fall.  Also, the listed record for each coach is his record with that respective school -- not his all-time win/loss record.  Now, regarding schedule strength. The SOS calculation was a inexact science that would make your standard issue math major cackle and an overly motivated statistics student put pen to paper. Essentially, I gave each team a strength total based on their very inexact preseason ranking (i.e., SM West was a 12, Free State was an 11 and down to SM North as a 1).  Also, if a team was facing one of these opponents on the road (and by road I mean a true road game -- Olathe and Shawnee Mission "away" games against foes from their school district were counted as home games, not away games) the team's strength was doubled (i.e., SM West was a 24, Free State was a 22.5 and SM North was a 2).  For the four non-league opponents Sunflower League teams will face, I assigned a strength similar to what I imagined they would rank in the Sunflower League (Blue Valley North was a 2, Blue Valley Northwest a 7, Gardner-Edgerton a 10 and Wyandotte a 1).   The 132.5 represents the most challenging schedule a Sunflower League team could face, and it was therefore the maximum schedule strength. The minimum schedule strength (for those of you keeping score at home) would be a 37.  Don't quote me on any of that.


Unknown said...

running back mario louis transferred to Shawnee Mission West. I look for Shawnee Mission South to be like West last season. Thats a scary unknown team.

Eli Underwood said...

Thanks for that info on Louis, Mike. Keeping track of who graduated is a task in and of itself -- transfers are a whole different story. SM South has as much athleticism as anybody, I could definitely see them doing damage this fall.

Wii Not Fit said...

Hit the nail on the head Eli well done.

@theRev_Carnahan said...
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KSB said...

Great read Eli! Right on.

TheImpaler said...

TheImpaler's 2013 Preseason Preview:

#1 Shawnee Mission West
Defending state champs, Best team in the league over the last decade. A boatload of talent returning including consensus all everything superstar Andre Maloney. A stupidly easy schedule with EIGHT games in Shawnee Mission stadiums. All that and $4 will buy them a cup of coffee. It's high school football, and anything can happen but it's hard to pick against the Vikes preseason. Maybe they'll miss Kez Demby, Max Bullard, Joey Reed, Brett Sterbach and Joel Spiller more than people think. Season starts September 6 at SMS stadium and ends November 30 in Topeka. with around 1800 plays in between. You have to earn it every play.
RED LETTER GAMES: 9/13 vs. OS, 9/27 @ LFS.
PREDICTION Season: 9-0, Districts: 3-0, Playoffs: #1 seed

#2 Olathe North
Venus Triplett and Cole Murphy provide a solid foundation for the newly resurgent Eagles and the return of Swain really puts them in the mix. I look for Coach Wier to have them back in the thick of the race this year. I know the Free State fans think they should be #2 but they have to play AT ON the week after they host SMW. The red, white and blue also have the advantage of no Vikings on their schedule. I am going out on a limb and taking the Eagles to soar again this year.
RED LETTER GAMES 10/3 vs. LFS, 11/1 vs. G/E
PREDICTION Season: 9-0, Districts: 3-0, Playoffs: #2 seed

#3 Lawrence Free State
Joe Dineen leads a number of returning starters for a Firebird team that made it to substate last year. This is a team that looks, unusually for a Bob Lisher team, to be very strong on defense this year. I'm picking them to lose both of the big games but they could very well surprise me. And with our crazy playoff system it might actually benefit them to lose those games come round 2 and 3 in the playoffs.
RED LETTER GAMES: 9/27 vs SMW, 10/3 @ ON
PREDICTION Season: 7-2, Districts: 3-0, Playoffs: #3 seed

#4 Olathe South
The real wild card team in the league this year in my opinion. Many thought the Falcons fell flat last year and had a disappointing season through lack of focus and effort. I think Coach Gourley will have them back in contention this year and Braden Smith has got to be aching to show last season was a fluke.
RED LETTER GAMES: 10/18 vs. G/E, 11/1 @ ON
PREDICTION Season: 7-2, Disticts: 2-1, Playoffs: @#4 OE

#5 Olathe East
A critical season for Coach Meyers and the Hawks in my opinion. This league is changing and getting better and faster and even though they may put a ton of beef on the line, the lack of creativity on offense really hurt the orange and blue last season. You just cannot run 90% of your plays between the tackles in this league and meet with success any more. Maybe Blazevich wasn't the guy to do it last year but Coach M needs to come up with something more exciting on offense somehow.
RED LETTER GAMES: 9/6 @ ON, 10/4 vs. OS
PREDICTION Season: 5-4, Districts 2-1, Playoffs: #4 seed

#6 Shawnee Mission South
The broccoli and cheese lack returning skill position players but I just have a gut feeling they're going to be competitive this year. Coach Longeran and the South faithful are really longing to take a step forward. They need to win 2 of the 3 red letter games to feel this is a successful season.
RED LETTER GAMES 10/4 vs. SME, 10/15 vs. BVNW, 11/1 vs. OE
PREDICTION Season: 5-4, Districts: . 2-1, Playoffs: @#3 LFS

TheImpaler said...

#7 Lawrence
I'm not sure the Lions know how to take the field without Brad Strauss at the helm anymore. Is it true he completed 18 touchdown passes to himself last year? And kicked the extra points? Maybe that's just a myth. Well, at least a playoff spot is pretty much a guarantee in their district.
RED LETTER GAMES 9/5 @ OS, 10/11 vs. ON, 11/1 @LFS
PREDICTION Season: 5-4, Districts: 2-1, Playoffs: @#1 SMW

#8 Olathe Northwest
The Ravens are interesting this year, but they're interesting most years. Most years they fall flat. I'm sure coach Sherman will change that but can he do it his first season?...I don't THINK so but he's proven me wrong before
RED LETTER GAMES: 9/13 @OE, 9/19 @ SME
PREDICTION Season: 3-6, Districts: 0-3, Playoffs: None

#9 Shawnee Mission Northwest
The Cougs have been in freefall since their league championship just 6 years ago. The hiring of coach Hibbs seems like a good start but unless the orange and black take a step forward this year, there will be a LOT of grumbling on 67th Street. I'm going to take them to upset a dispirited Lancer team in districts and garner a playoff spot
PREDICTION Season: 3-6, Districts: . 2-1, Playoffs @ #2 ON

#10 Shawnee Mission East
I know, I know Lancer fans...but go out and prove me wrong. I see big step backwards for the black and blue this year with virtually all their talent gone and a new coach and a new system And let's face it, the flexbone is a high risk, low reward offense that requires BIG, FAST kids to garner success with. I don't think the Lancs have what they need to operate this system this year. Add in a pretty tough schedule and an upset by SMNW in districts and I think it looks bleak on Mission Road this year.
RED LETTER GAMES 9/20vs. ONW, 10/4 @ SMS, 10/18 @SMNW
PREDICTION Season: 2-7. Districts: 1-2. Playoffs: None

#11 Leavenworth
You know you live in a culture of losing when your high point is a 4-5 season. The Pioneers lone bright spot is the return of Jason Randall but with little supporting cast and a brutal schedule, they will be hard pressed to repeat their 'success' of last season.
RED LETTER GAMES: 9/13 vs.SMN, 9/26 @ SMNW
PREDICTION Season: 2-7,Districts: 1-2, Playoffs: None

#12 Shawnee Mission North
The good news is things can't get any worse at North. The bad news is they're unlikely to get any better this year. Even their old usually guaranteed win against Leavenworth is a long shot for the Indians in 2013.
PREDICTION Season: 0-9, Districts 0-3, Playoffs: None

OlatheEastfan said...

Nice job like always Eli.. I hope the High School, Player and the coaching staff appreciate what you do for the Sunflower League...

OlatheEastfan said...

Nice job like always Eli.. I hope the High School, Player and the coaching staff appreciate what you do for the Sunflower League...

Move the Chains said...

Nice run down Eli and Impaler. I think we have SMW and LFS as solid 1 and 2 with the rest scrambling for position this year. Hard to nail down 4-12 teams with new faces and graduations. For example, Eli has SME at 5 and Impaler at 9. Strength of scheduling seems inequitable across the league but guess hard to make fair each year in HS. Easy on the Pioneers Impaler---4 wins is good considering their dynamics----smallest HS in 6a, transient community with military, and high coaching turnover. Fun year to see how SFL plays out.

OlatheEastfan said...

My 2013 preseason-power Ranking

SM West
Olathe North
Olathe East
Lawrence Free State
Olathe South
Olathe North West
SM South
SM North
SW Northwest

Free State Fan said...

Incredibly written and insightful - as usual - Eli! No clue how you do it, but it is much appreciated by all of us armchair QB's and wanna be pundits. As is my tradition, I never predict outcomes, rank teams or talk bad of any blogger/school. (Outside of my weekly vote to predict a FS win, so it is not a "real" prediction. For the record, I "predict" a 9-0 season for the 'Birds and a state championship.) My ultimate goal this year is to get to the highest rung of Eli's social media post-season awards. Love 'ya, Eli!

Every year, the SFL has its surprise players and teams - that is why it is the best league in the state to follow. Go 'Birds!

Govannon Grey said...

My potential surprises are Olathe Northwest and Leavenworth.

MahValley said...

1. SM West
2. Olathe North
3. Lawrence Free State
4. Olathe East
5. Olathe South
6. Leavenworth
7. Lawrence
8. Olathe North West
9. SM South
10.SW Northwest
11.SM North

MahValley said...
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Austin Lockwood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Austin Lockwood said...

1. Olathe North
2. Shawnee Mission West
3. Olathe East
4. Lawrence Free State
5. Olathe South
6. Lawrence
7. Shawnee Mission East
8. Shawnee Mission South
9. Olathe Northwest
10. Leavenworth
11. Shawnee Mission Northwest
12. Shawnee Mission North

Wii Not Fit said...

Interesting to see Olathe East so high on all of the boards. If I remember right they are having to replace a hefty majority of their offense when they lost their starting running back and quarterback and a good amount of offensive lineman, not to mention the secondary they lost. I may be late but here are my predictions:

1. SM West
2. Free State
3. O North
4. O South
5. SM South
6. Leavenworth (sleeper, I'm very high on Jason Randall despite his lack of offensive line)
7. O East
8. SM East
9. Lawrence
10. O Northwest
11. SM Northwest
12. SM North

HUGE talent this year in the SL and I could not be more excited for it. LET'S PLAY SOME FOOTBALL!

Unknown said...

How can you put Leavenworth ahead of Olathe East when your reason is one Randall's ability alone? A line is needed to win, point blank, and although East may not have many returners on the line, they still churn up some of the best run blocking linemen in the league. Match that and a defense returning more than 7 guys we have ourselves a contender. I agree to not sleep on Leavenworth, Randall has the ability like Chambers and Smith to change the outcome of a game, but one man does not win a game in football, this isn't tennis. Also Olathe South's entire team is essentially gone. Aside from the Demi-God holding down the line, all skill position players, linebackers, and most linemen are gone. North will be the favorites in the O-Town.
Game of week 1: O. East @ O. North

Govannon Grey said...

Not that this is a STRONG indicator of what happens 3 years later, but the 3 best sophomore groups from 3 years ago were in this order BVNW, SMW, BVW and OE,. BVNW had a lot of the key kids from that team move or transfer (ie Henry McGrew). We all saw what SMW did last year and what they have this year, and BVW was 1 inch from State last year and favored to go in 5A this year. This is why I, personally, Think OE has a chance of being up to #2 on the list. ON, with their strong group of Juniors can contend. That Junior class, when they were freshmen, the top teams were BVW,BV,OS, and ON in that order (If you're interested to know OS freshmen beat ON's freshmen, and yes Josh Moore and Venus Triplette did play that game). I know this isn't an EKL blog, but BV West has had 3 really good classes in a row, they're going to be a team to watch for 2-3 more years.

Wii Not Fit said...

I like Leavenworth a lot actually. It isn't just Randall that I'm high on although I think he is the 2nd best running back in the entire state behind Traevohn Wrench. Like Eli said Isaiah Ross could very possibly be the fastest player in the Sunflower league and if they have anyone with any sort of arm, they could use him as a weapon to spread the field and give Randall a little more room to breathe, not to mention a solid line backing core returning. The only thing I see holding them back is a pure lack of expectation which is truly a shame. Leavenworth has always been bad and they don't see any reason to think they will improve any time soon. Hopefully the talent they have this year will push them to a decent season and change the mindset of Leavenworth football down there. We shall see.

Eli Underwood said...

As I stated on Twitter, a 6-3 regular season from Leavenworth is possible. Their first four games are all winnable (SME, SMN, Olathe South, @SMNW), and they face Wyandotte and Lawrence in districts, which could be two more victories.

The thing is, I need to see it first. Last season three of their wins came against opponents with a combined record of 4-23, and their fourth win was against Wyandotte. They're also going through a coaching change -- switching to a head coach who hasn't been a head coach since 2007, to go along with a new quarterback.

Ranking the Pioneers at #10 in the Preseason Power Rankings was a conservative move on my behalf, but I certainly won't have trouble bumping them up the rankings if they perform well.

Slugger said...

Well, going to have to put my preseason predictions in here if I'm going to have bragging rights at the end of the season.

1. SM West - Defending champion. Number one until somebody knocks them off.

2. Olathe North - Mean Gene is back.

3. Lawrence Free State - Returns a lot of talent.

4. Olathe East - They lost a lot of talent, but Myers has them in the hunt every year.

5. Lawrence - Does anyone remember what the Lions looked like without Strauss at QB?

6. Olathe South - Disappointing year from a very talented team last year. Lost a lot of talent. Consider it a success if they make the playoffs.

7. SM South - I thought they would be much improved last year. Still waiting.

8. SME - New coach, completly different offensive philosophy. How long til the players buy in and pick it up. Look for a much improved year.

9. Leavenworth - Littrel returns. How long until he has Leavenworth challenging? The window is short. Will Leavenworth even be in the Sunflower league once the 5th Olathe high school opens?

10. Olathe North West - New, proven, winning coach. Very little talent returning. They will be better, but not this year.

11. SM Northwest

12. SM North

Who's Your Daddy said...

Daddy's in the house with picks for the 2013 season. And as expected I'm going to go against the grain a bit.

1. Olathe North- Why? Ball control, And a defense that most people don't know how good they really are. Swain is a freak athlete and will nullify an entire side of the field. Rowden and Moore have seen major playing time since their sophomore year. But ball hawk linebacker unknowns named Spears and Kendricks will make this defense the best in the conference. On the offensive end Gene Weir should thank his lucky stars he came back during V-tripps Junior year. He will turn out to be the best back North has had since D Sproles. By the way, Tripp really goes about 190 lbs or more and is solid muscle with a desire to win that is unmatched. Ball control, great defense, and a freak play action weapon like Josh Moore. North Should go undefeated.

2. SM West- My alma matter. Why second? Because Brett Sterbach is not there. He was the heart and sole of the Vikes last season. Sure Maloney is a great athlete but he won't be able to do it all. Especially playing both ways. Verdini is a good QB but not great. Chambers has slow feet and lacks raw strength. He would be protecting the QB's blind side if he were as good as some think. The Vikes can't win with the passing game alone. Until they prove they can run like last year which opened up the play action. I say second. By the way, I love the Vikes linebackers as well, but Norths will be the top group at that position. And the big ? is the ball control part. Look for Maloney to run alot of wildcat starting around game 2 or 3.

3. LFS I think Dineen is a great athlete. The question is he a great QB. I say prove it. They want you to think hes going to be Lawrences kansas next Brad strauss. Any good athlete can run from the QB position. Lets see if he can pass. If he can Free state will have a chance to finish above three. They have a good surrounding core and I love their offensive ingenuity. Olathe North should have beat them last year but gave the game away. This year North is better and Free State is weaker.

4.Olathe East- I'm going to tread lightly on Coach Meyers this year because I have skin in the game. East won every game this Summer in 7on7 competition. They have some really good receivers on their roster and two QB's who can throw the ball very well. Jalen Branson has the ability to be an elite running back but the work ethic may not be there. Defense looks strong with several very experienced retuning players. Alexander, Trinkle, Guthrie just to name a few. The million dollar question is Meyers. Had he used his talent base with play action over the last twenty years he would have at least 5 State rings. You cant teach an old dog new tricks. East could easily finish lower but could finish higher if Meyers has an awakening.

5. Olathe Northwest- Why? I thought they underachieved last season based on their talent level. Some of you may laugh but yes they have talent. And know they have the Coach to go with it.
Look for the Ravens to be much improved with a good mix of run and pass. If they master their offense theres a chance they could take East's spot. Good Coaches win with any players. SKIP SHERMAN!!
6. Olathe South- Braden Smith,Braden Smith, Braden Smith. Did I say Braden Smith. Could eventually be one of the greatest players to come out of this area ever. But can he pass or run the ball? Probably not. South has some good Juniors in their class such as Jake Sauer. Olathe South Lax Champs!
7. SM South- I'm going with South hear because they can't be horrible forever. The demographics of their district is changing much likes West's has over the last 10 years. They are getting much better athletes than they have in the past. The problem is how good is their coaching?
8. Lawrence- Its going to take Lawrence several years to get over that Brad Strauss hangover.
9. Leavenworth- I want to put them higher based on Randall. But sorry they burned me last season.
10. SME- .
11. SMNW-
12. SMN-

Northwest Fan said...

Sleep on Shawnee Mission Northwest all you want but I expect the Cougars to pull out a winning season. Their only notable weakness will be a lack of a passing game, but it will still be improved compared to last season. The cougars boast a strong offensive and defensive line, a powerful array of tailbacks, and a veteran returning secondary.

MahValley said...

NW Fan, I do not think that anyone is sleeping on the cougars. They will have several new offensive lineman with little varsity experience the QB has never played the position that I know of and I think they loose last years entire LB corps but they do have a safety that is capable of playing at the next level.

That being said there are a few guys that could have played varsity last year that could not buy any playing time at any level and their 170# State Champ wrestler, who I know was on the football team, did not play a meaningful down of varsity in the 3 games I watched.

SMNW does have talant but for what ever reason over the past 6 years a lot of it has been parked on the sidelines. And personally, I do not see that approach changing even over the next 5-8 years.

MahValley said...

P.S. NW Fan, except for the one safety the secondary appears to have been poorly coached in the pass defense and run support is extremely lacking.

EKL Fan said...

So everyone thinks ON and OS are going to beat GE this year? HA..... GE is stronger than ever this year. All of their skill players are back and they are bigger faster and stronger

Who's Your Daddy said...

ON and GE will be the game of the year at the end of the season. OS has no chance to beat either one of those two.