Five playoff teams from a year ago get an early start to the 2017 campaign with games in zero week.  Leading that charge is the matchup between Meeker and Highland as both teams are coming off post-season visits a year ago.  The Cowboys reached the state final before falling to Strasburg while the Huskies were bounced in the first round by Bennett.  Also on the gridiron in zero week are post-season members Crowley County, Peyton and Ellicott.
Meeker topped Highland 18-8 in zero week last season behind solid efforts from Logan Hughes (182 yards passing) and Doak Mantle (78 yards rushing) and both players are back for another title run.  Hughes finished his junior season with 2,529 yards and 31 TD’s.  The lefty tossed just ten interceptions the entire year but four came in the state final loss.  Mantle meantime picked up 1,058 yards on the ground with ten touchdowns.
The biggest concern for Meeker offensively is the development of new receivers.  The top four receivers from last year all graduated including Cole Brown who caught 11 scoring passes from Hughes.  How well that group and the offensive line develops will determine if the Cowboys can make another championship run.  Defensively, the top four tacklers are gone but Mantle (82 tackles) and Trapper Merrifield (66) both return.
Highland finished 6-4 a year ago with every loss coming against a playoff team and three of those four teams reached the state semifinals (Bennett, Meeker, Strasburg).  First up for the Huskies is to find a signal caller as long-time starter Cole Rouse graduated last Spring.  That job may go to Hunter Routh who attempted just six passes all season.
The running game will be anchored by Logan Stewart who picked up 763 yards and eight touchdowns last season but he’s the only Husky returnee with more than 53 yards in his career.  Jacob Smith (13 receptions) is the top returning receiver and no others with more than one catch return.
The defense is anchored by Koby Anderson, who led the team as a sophomore with 135 tackles.  He also tied for the team lead with three interceptions and was second with seven tackles for loss.  Also back is Ricardo Ramirez (86 tackles).
Peyton reached the second round of the playoffs before their perfect season ended with a 63-27 setback.  That loss marked just the third time all season the Panthers defense surrendered more than 10 points and that group could be strong again with the return of Mitchell Swartz and Josh Gonzales.  Swartz ended up second in tackles last year (97), second in tackles for loss (23) and topped the Panthers with 12.5 sacks.  Gonzales turned in several big plays with five interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Offensively, the Panthers ran for nearly 27-hundred yards in 2016 but the top two rushers from that unit graduated.  Gonzales was third on the team in rushing (498) and should get more carries in 2017.  QB Trevor Walker also returns after rushing for 438 yards and throwing for 533.
Up first for Peyton this year is a zero week battle with Trinidad and they topped the Miners 28-0 a year ago.  That loss started a difficult 2-7 campaign for the Miners who remain in rebuild mode this year.  The top two running backs graduated leaving Ray Garcia (109) as the top returning rusher.  Dylan Armijo is the likely starting QB as he completed 8 of 22 passes for 209 yards in spot duty a year ago.  Gene Lechuga (59 tackles) and Lawrence Sandoval (2 INT’s) are back to lead what could be an improved defense.
Crowley County has won a league championship each of the past three years and is the early favorite in the Santa Fe again this year.  Their schedule opens at home Friday against Colorado Springs Christian and while the teams are very familiar with one another, the Chargers have a big advantage at the QB spot.  That’s because they return fourth year starter Bradley Clabey while the Lions are searching for a successor to Justin Engesser who finished his career with nearly 68-hundred yards and 78 TD’s.
Clabey meantime is coming off an injury plagued junior season where he managed nearly 900 yards of offense.  Overall, the senior has thrown for 1,488 yards and 20 TD’s in his career.  Clabey returns offensive weapons in Chris Meyer and Hayden Carter.  Meyer was second to Dylan Tuma in rushing last year totaling 507 yards and led the team with 11 receptions.  Hayden Carter caught just 11 passes a year ago but four went for touchdowns and he’s also back on the outside.
While CSCS settles in on a new signal caller, they may try to run the football a bit more than in recent years.  Gabe Danzik led the Lions with 576 yards rushing last season and is back for what should be a busier senior season.  Jordan Greager caught 56 passes including 12 TD’s last season and is the leading returning receiver.
Greager was also a factor on defense with three interceptions.  He’s joined on that unit by Ethan Hanks who led the team with 89 tackles a year ago.  Hanks also recorded 4.5 sacks and ten stops for a loss.
Ellicott could also be a bit more defensive oriented early this season as they too look for a new quarterback.  The Thunderhawks, who lost to Meeker 43-6 in the first round, return their top three tacklers in Kyle Ager (71), Chiante’ Stewart (68) and Braydn Cowen (59).  That trio should help take some of the pressure off the successor to Matt Davidson who threw for 1,487 yards in his senior season.  Also softening his loss is the return of Stewart offensively who totaled 18 touchdowns and nearly 12-hundred yards a year ago.
The Thunderhawks opened 2016 with a 56-16 thrashing of Ignacio and they again face the Bobcats in zero week this season.  Ignacio ended up with just three wins a year beating Crownpoint NM, Montezuma Cortez and Dolores.  Their top returnees are Kruz Pardo and Lawrence Valdez.  They saw spot duty on offense a year ago but could turn into first options this season.
One late addition to the zero week schedule is the matchup between Centauri and Paonia in La Jara.  Both teams had Center on their schedule but when the Vikings decided they would not field a team for the 2017 season, the Falcons and Eagles got together on a zero week game.  It will take place Friday at 7:00pm with Centauri serving as the host.  The Falcons return quite a bit of talent from the 2016 squad that barely missed out on the playoffs and they hope to challenge Monte Vista for the Southern Peaks title.  Paonia won back-to-back state championships in 2013-14 and reached a third consecutive final in 2015.  Last year the Eagles ended their season in the state semifinals and open this season with Blaine Escher in charge of the program as a first year coach.
Colorado Preps will provide a complete season preview in Class 1A later this week and provide weekly updates throughout the regular season all the way to the state championship game.