Strasburg has spent a good share of the last two seasons in the top spot of the 1A football rankings and the Indians are there again to begin the 2018 campaign. Coach Jeff Giger’s club has dominated the division since moving in prior to the 2016 season; losing just one game while winning two consecutive state championships.  Expected to push them this year are familiar names and traditional powers on the 1A level.
Offense has carried Strasburg to the back-to-back state championships.  Over two years and 26 games, the Indians have totaled 1,068 points and over 7,000 yards rushing.  But it was defense that led them to a second title last fall as they held on to edge Centauri 10-7 in double overtime.
For the Indians to make it three in a row, new faces will have to step up and contribute immediately and one of the newcomers will miss at least a portion of the season.  Sophomore Trystran Graf entered the season as the top returning rusher (368) but an injury suffered in pre-season practice pushes him out of the season opener with University and likely the entire first month overall.
With that injury, Michael Spence (368) and Michael Burns (196) will be asked to do even more in the running game.  They’ll get some help from offensive lineman Owen Strain and Eddie Duron in developing the ground attack.
Defensively, the Indians should get solid play from Wyatt Warren.  He led the way with 74 tackles last year including nine for a loss.  Jon Walters was second with 61 tackles and Collin Russell added five interceptions as a freshman.
The early schedule is difficult as the Indians open with an improved 2A University and then face three consecutive challenges in Burlington, arch-rival Bennett and Limon.
Limon enters the season ranked #2 and the Badgers return a very solid group.  The defense, which pitched six shutouts last season, could be stout again as the top four tacklers return.  Leading the charge is Hauk Hubbard (75), Javier Zamora (72), Braden Sandersfeld (70) and Cannan Bennett (66).  Also contributing will be Bradyn Tacha (46), Woody Aguilar (36) and Celby Hollenbaugh (34).  Bigger numbers are also expected from Kory Tacha and Morgan Arnold who combined for 53 tackles despite each being limited to just six games.
The same names will impact the Badgers offense.  Hubbard led the club with 1,322 yards rushing and 13 TD’s and Bennett came within 40 yards of throwing for 1,000 on the season.  He tossed 12 TD’s and added 568 yards on the ground.  Sandersfeld is the top returning receiver with 25 catches and 346 yards; both team leading numbers from last year.
#3 Burlington edged Limon 29-28 last year to grab another North Central crown and the schedule could favor the Cougars on their way to another title this year.  They host both Wray (September 28th) and Limon (October 12th) so the Cougars get their most difficult tests at home.
The 2017 season began and ended with a loss to Strasburg last year.  The Cougars lost to the eventual state champs 24-6 in the opener and then 21-0 in the state quarterfinals.  And first up on their schedule is another date with Strasburg in week two.  Burlington is off in week one while Strasburg, as mentioned, gets to face University.
Braden Witzel leads the list of returnees on both sides of the ball.  The senior threw for 1,047 yards and 13 TD’s last year and also led the team with 91 tackles and eight sacks.  Helping out offensively are Kaden Meurisse (939 yards rushing) and Micah Hanson (17 receptions).
On defense, the next three tacklers after Witzel all gradated but Taylor Scott returns after ending up fifth (38).  Andrew Burton also picked off four passes and is back for his junior season.
No team faced a more difficult end to the season than #4 Centauri.  Unbeaten through 12 games, the Falcons missed a couple of opportunities in the double-overtime championship loss.  It was their second state finals loss since 2013 and it left an unfinished business taste in their mouth going into 2018.
The Falcons allowed just 75 points the entire season and that group should again be the strength of the team.  Bennie Chacon registered 130 tackles from the defensive line including 16 behind the line of scrimmage.  Adam Chacon ended 2017 with 100 tackles while Tristan Crowther (74) and Deontay Martinez (48) were also factors.
On offense, Coach Kyle Forster’s club had three 600-yard rushers a year ago but Taj Cornum (761) is the only returnee among them.  He finished with 11 TD’s.  Eric Maez may also be the new QB as he completed five of six passes for 55 yards and two scores in a backup role last season.
Centauri opens with Paonia at home on August 31st.  Their key league game is again with Monte Vista.  It’s set for October 5th and will likely again determine the championship.
After reaching the state championship game in 2016, #5 Meeker was bounced in the state quarterfinals by Limon (18-14) last year.  They were unbeaten going into the game but struggled against the Badgers defense.
Defense is what Meeker may have to rely on at least early this season as their leading passer, rusher and receiver all graduated.  But Tannen Kennedy (115) is back after leading the Cowboys in tackles last year.  He’s joined there by Tevin Pelloni (96) and James Amick (82).  Stephen Walsh also grabbed five interceptions.
Walsh is a key returnee on offense as well with 16 catches a year ago.  Eli Hanks added 15.  Jorgen Stagg (285 yards) is the top returning rusher while Kale Burke and Ryan Phelan should battle for the starting QB job to succeed three-year starter Logan Hughes.  Hughes finished his career with nearly 5,700 yards through the air.
#6 Peyton opens the season in search of a fourth consecutive playoff berth.  Coach Richard Deems and the Panthers have created 24 wins over the past three years including a first-round playoff win over Limon in 2016.  They were blanked by Paonia (13-0) in an opening playoff game played in a windstorm last November.
Trevor Walker is among the best QB’s in the division.  He totaled over 1,100 yards of offense last year and was involved in 16 TD’s.  Josh Gonzales (502) and Gunner Saarela (462) combined for 964 yards and 14 scores and they return to pace the ground game.
Nate McIarty headed up the Peyton defense last year with a team best 113 tackles including 20 for loss.  Gonzales also intercepted four passes and he should go both ways again this year.
Depth may be more of a concern for the Panthers this year as Calhan has restarted their football program.  Over the past two years, the two schools combined for a team.
Another change is a conference move as the Panthers are now members of the Santa Fe conference.  Crowley County has been the team to beat there of late and Rocky Ford is improved this season.  Peyton meets those two in back-to-back weeks October 12th and 20th.
#7 Paonia again seems to be the top challenger to Meeker in the Western Slope.  The Eagles won eight games last year but were eliminated by Bennett one week after topping Peyton.  This year, they open with the two best teams from the Southern Peaks (Centauri and Monte Vista) and also have a tough test with 2A Basalt before embarking on the conference schedule.  Meeker is up on October 12th and the Eagles will be on the road for that one.
TB Jaden Miller (1,517 yards rushing) and QB Caden Meilner (879 total yards) are both key losses for Paonia.  That means Jesse Burns (267) and Sackett Chesnik (261) should get more carries this year.  They combined to score four times in 2017.
Chesnik is the most notable returnee on defense after finishing second with 78 tackles.  Other returnees there include Anthony Felice (63) and Levi Peterson (56).  Grey Neal also recorded 51 stops.
#8 Wray is coming off their first playoff appearance since 2014 and with a nice nucleus back for 2018, they should be invited again.  They also hope to close the gap a bit with Burlington and Limon in the North Central.  Over the past two years, they’ve lost twice to each team and by double digits each time.
The Eagles completed just 22 passes for 324 yards last year and again will be run dominated.  That’s because the top 10 rushers were all underclassmen including Cade Hillman.  He led the attack with 1,413 yards and 16 TD’s while averaging almost seven yards per carry.
Also back is the duo of Emmanuel Huerta (604) and Junior Arambula (307).  Huerta added seven touchdowns and Arambula scored once.
Hillman also topped the defense with 82 tackles and is joined by three others who finished in the top six there.  Carlos Tarin was third with 53, Carson Berghuis fourth with 46 and Dax Collins fifth with 40.  Tarin, Collins and Huerta also combined for seven interceptions.
#9 Crowley County graduated a talented senior class that won 33 games and reached the playoffs each season.  They were 8-2 last year with both losses coming against Limon including a 19-6 decision in the post-season.
Among the biggest losses is Bradley Clabey.  A four-year starter at QB, he threw for 2,604 yards and ran for 1,240 over his career and was involved in 60 TD’s.  As the Chargers sort out his replacement, look for Brannan Harris (222 yards rushing) and Michael Cortes (14 catches) to be busy.
The defense should be in much better through the early stages.  Lane Walter was second on the team with 71 tackles and he returns to the lineup as does Harris (61), Cortez (44), Brett Geringer (39) and Jared Bauer (34).
As mentioned, the Chargers have a new conference member in Peyton and they face the Panthers on the road and must go to Rocky Ford as well.  The annual regular season clash with Limon is set for Ordway.
Another team needing newcomers to step up offensively is #10 Monte Vista.  The Pirates lost powerful FB Joe Chavez to graduation.  He generated over half of the offensive yardage last year and scored 18 touchdowns.
Replacing Chavez will fall on the shoulders of Tyler Vigil (340 yards), Zach Hindes (26) and Kaidon Wenta (253).  They combined for 171 carries but that number should increase quite a bit in 2018.
An exciting change in scheduling has Monte Vista opening the season against San Luis Valley neighbor Alamosa on August 31st.  It’s the first time the rivals will play since 2005.  Alamosa won the game 21-7 that year and ironically Monte Vista Coach Manny Wasinger was on the other sideline and in charge of the Mean Moose.
League wise, the Pirates likely need to upset Centauri to land the championship.  They fell twice to the Falcons in 2017 including a 35-7 loss in an opening playoff contest.
Yuma (14), Florence (12), Highland (8) and Olathe (7) garnered the most attention for clubs not included in the pre-season rankings.  Yuma won just three games a year ago and totaled just 109 points; but they were very young.  QB Chase McCreath threw for 1,028 yards and eight TD’s last year and top target Victor Mendoza returns after catching 35 passes with six scores.
Florence comes into 1A after spending several years as a state championship contender in both 2A and 3A.  The Huskies though have suffered through hard times of late; winning just two games last year.  They’ve not been over 500 since going 8-3 in 2013 but don’t be surprised if they become a factor quickly on the 1A level.  Buena Vista and Strasburg are two teams that won championships in the first couple of seasons after a similar move.
Owen Busetti could be the main ball carrier after picking up 199 yards as a freshman.  Levi Koonce added 133 yards and returns for his senior season.  Another Husky to watch is Malaki Young who led the team with 74 tackles a year ago.
Highland has been a playoff team the last two years but has not made it past the first round either time.  Logan Stewart is back at QB after throwing for 711 yards and five touchdowns as a junior.  He was also second on the Huskies with 422 yards rushing.  On defense, nine of the top 10 tacklers return including team leader Devin Hines (75) and #2 Koby Anderson (71).  Ulysses Jaquez (52), Hector Flores (51) and Holden Morgan (50 as freshman) are also back in the lineup.
The Huskies have a very important game with Wray in week one.  Both clubs should be in the playoff race and will likely be in the running for a wildcard spot as a non-league champion.  Highland finished second to Strasburg the past two years in the North and again must tangle with the Indians.  Wray as previously mentioned, is in the same league with Limon and Burlington.  The week one winner will have the advantage of getting in and possibly gaining a higher seed.
Olathe opened 4-2 last year but failed to reach the playoffs because of closing losses to Paonia, Hotchkiss and Meeker.  Cesar Suarez and Elias Ramirez were the top two rushers last year and both return for the Pirates.