Only three players who garnered end-of-season honors return for this year, giving the campaign a wide-open feel. The co-op between Hi-Plains and Flagler won the state title last year, and entering this season as Flagler, they are the slight favorite to win it all. Cheyenne Wells, who finished last year as runner-up, is also very much in the mix.
The top returnee for Flagler will be junior Kyle Klann, who tallied just over 1000 all-purpose yards, including 554 as a receiver. He’s also the top returning passer and rusher. Dustin Rico (319 receiving yards) and Nathan Sayles (157 receiving yards) also bring experience on the offensive side of the ball for coach Alex Lowther. Those three will be integral to the success of the defense as well. Klann led the team with 124 tackles, while Rico (73) and Sayles (57) were high on the team charts, and the trio combined for eight fumble recoveries.
Despite losing two players who have moved on to play at the next level, Fleming begins the year at #2. John King will have to fill a major void at quarterback, after the departure of his son, Jaxon, who will be playing at Chadron State. The younger King threw for 4672 yards and 82 touchdowns in his career, and also was a standout safety, recording 258 tackles and seven interceptions. Eric Resendiz is the only returning player who attempted a pass last year, as he went 3-10 for 25 yards. The other big holes to fill are those left by Alex Vandenbark (Colorado School of Mines) at both running back and linebacker. Vandenbark rushed for close to 2900 yards and 48 TDs in his career, primarily as the power back. Kolton Dickinson will likely see a larger role in the running game after leading the team with 1122 yards last year. Matthew Tanner and Paul Asfeld will help the passing game as big targets at the end positions. The defense will also have to replace Levi Muller, who recorded 10 tackles for loss.
The defending runner-up, Cheyenne Wells, lost three players who earned honors last year, including two of their biggest threats on offense, Jaime Huerta and Kendall Pelton. Garrett Smith will bring back a very good trio of Wyatt Fishler, Quade Pelton and Beau Roth, who combined for over 1700 all-purpose yards. They were also the third, fourth and fifth leading tacklers, with each recording at least 52 tackles. Roth led the squad with four interceptions.
Peetz has one of the two returning second team all-state players in Bryson Long. As a sophomore, Long led the Bulldogs with 627 passing yards and was second with 894 yards on the ground. He had a hand in 30 touchdowns on offense and added two more on fumble recoveries. Zach Holtz (212 yards) and Tre Fehringer (149 yards) were also effective throwing the ball, while Hunter White averaged better than 10 yards a carry. Logan Sircy showed great ball hawking skills on both sides for coach Scott Sorensen, catching 16 passes for 328 yards and five touchdowns and also snagging eight interceptions.
The biggest loss for Kit Carson (#5) in the offseason was that of Hall of Fame coach, Jim Trahern, who retired after coaching the Wildcats for 30 years. In that time, the Wildcats won 191 games and reached the postseason 24 times. Stepping into the head coach role this year will be Curt Connelley. He inherits a young but talented squad, led by junior Chris Bryan who was the leading rusher last season with 584 yards. Bryan also caught 15 passes for 366 yards. William Hornung is another big threat in the passing game, as he hauled in 13 balls for 220 yards.  TJ Conaway is a weapon on special teams, as he converted 44 of 57 PAT kicks.
Stratton/Liberty is one of the rare teams that brings back most of its skill players on both sides of the ball, but must replace big guys up front. The Knighted Eagles return a 1000-yard passer (Tyson Lichty), 1200-yard rusher (Jacob McCormick), and a 500-yard receiver (Phillip Pickard). Pickard was the leading tackler a year ago, recording 108 stops, and he will have plenty of help from Eltan Yarger who was second with 96. Toby Kechter’s squad scored at least 44 points in 10 of 11 games last year, but allowed 61 and 64 points in its two losses.
Genoa-Hugo’s season came to a crashing end last year in the opening round of the playoffs. The Pirates were leading Arickaree/Woodlin 45-19 at the half, but a broken jaw suffered by quarterback Brandon Ravenkamp completely changed their fortunes. The Indian-Mustangs rallied with 28 fourth quarter points to win the game by a 53-45 count. Ravenkamp had thrown for 313 yards prior to his injury. One of the most experienced members to come back from that 6-3 squad is junior Caid Smith, a second team all-state performer. Smith led the Pirates with 665 rushing yards and 467 receiving yards. Nicholas Knutson led the team with 28 receptions and was second with 450 yards. Smith (106 tackles) and Knutson (74) are also the top returning defensive players.
After losing over half of their roster to graduation, there was some speculation in the offseason that the Eads Eagles (#8) might not be able to field a team this year. However, Trey Eder’s squad is back and looking to build upon last year’s 6-3 record. Seniors Trevor Randel (721 rushing yards) and Trey McDowell (247 passing yards) are likely to see much of the workload for what shapes up as a very young squad. Most of the early going could be focused on the ground game as McDowell is the only player on the roster who caught a pass last year, and he caught exactly one ball. Randel will bring some much needed experience to the defense, as he was the leading tackler last year with 63.
The big key for Arickaree/Woodlin this year might be keeping Kevin Ramirez healthy. The diminutive speedster missed four games last season but still rushed for 422 yards. The Indian-Mustangs appear to be set at quarterback, as Michael McCaffrey returns for his junior year. McCaffrey must improve on his 7-3 touchdown to interception mark from last year. A wildcard for coach Don Myers in his first year back as head coach for the program is Lane Kolman. Kolman tore up his knee on a non-contact play in their scrimmage with Prairie last season, and missed the entire campaign. He is still awaiting a doctor’s clearance.
Originally, Pawnee had gained the #10 spot in the preseason rankings, but it was announced earlier this week that the Coyotes would not be able to field a team. That brings teams like Cotopaxi, North Park, Prairie, La Veta and Otis into the equation. Cotopaxi, La Veta and Sierra Grande are expected to compete for the top spot in the Southwest Division, while North Park and Prairie hope to make some noise in the North. Otis starts the year looking up at Stratton/Liberty and Arickaree/Woodlin in the East Central, but the Bulldogs bring back some very experience skill players.