Four semifinalists from the 2016 campaign headline the 2017 Class 2A Football pre-season rankings but the order is different from last year’s finish.  La Junta topped Kent Denver 17-10 to win the state championship but the Tigers start this season ranked third with the Sun Devils holding down the top spot.  Bayfield and Delta ended their seasons in the semifinals last season but check in at numbers two and four respectively.
Of the four teams, Kent Denver and Bayfield return the most key players from a year ago.  The top ranked Sun Devils return four first team all-state performers plus a slew of others who contributed as underclassmen last season.  Bayfield lost a starting quarterback to graduation but has a talented newcomer at that spot along with other top returnees who should keep the Wolverines in the state title discussion.
The four returning first team players for Kent Denver are Joshua McDonald, Charles McKissick, TJ Love and Willy Boatman.  McDonald ran for 108 yards and a touchdown in the state championship game and finished with 746 yards and four scores on the season.  McKissick picked up 47 yards rushing against La Junta to end the season with 687 yards and nine TDs.  Love and Boatman were big factors on the defense side combining for 152 tackles including 59 for loss.  The two also combined for 13 sacks.
Other key Sun Devils of note defensively are Noah Van Sickle (team leading eight sacks) and Conrad Yost (team leading five interceptions).  Veteran Coach Scott Yates, who enters the season tied with West Grand’s Chris Brown for the most wins in Colorado history, also welcomes back starting quarterback Joey Licht who threw for over 1,300 yards and 17 TD’s as a sophomore.  In the state finals, Licht completed 12 of 25 passes for 185 yards but tossed three crucial interceptions.  He entered the game with just two picks the entire season.
Bayfield’s (9-3) lone loss to a 2A rival came in the state semifinals to La Junta.  The Wolverines led the game 13-0 in the fourth quarter but surrendered two late scores in the very frustrating loss.  That decision should push Coach Gary Heide’s club throughout this season.  As mentioned, the Wolverines lost talented QB Josh Westbrook to graduation but Hayden Farmer should be ready to step in.  He threw for 367 yards and six scores as a sophomore.  He also has the advantage of handing the ball off to returning running backs David Hawkins (1,001 yards), Keyon Prior (327), Carl Heide (224) and Hunter Killough (202).  Ryan Phelps also returns as the top receiver with 21 catches as a junior followed by Prior (17) and Killough (7).
But the real strength of the Wolverines may be on the defensive side as the same players have displayed big play abilities.  Killough recorded 25 tackles for loss last season, Phelps and Cole Wood 13 and Hawkins 12.  Phelps led the team with 13 sacks followed by Wood with 11.  Prior (3) and Hawkins (2) combined for five interceptions and Wood and Hawkins each recovered two fumbles.
La Junta enjoyed one of those special seasons in 2016 going a perfect 13-0 to win their first state football crown since 1958.  Along the way, the Tigers played a brutal schedule and picked up two exciting down to the wire victories including the semifinal win over Bayfield.  Nearly the entire starting lineup were seniors last year but the Tigers do return arguably the best offensive weapon in the class in junior QB Jon Nuschy.  He led the Tigers with 1,407 yards rushing and 1,100 yards passing.  Altogether the multi-threat signal caller was involved in 33 touchdowns.  In six games, he passed for at least 100 yards and had nine such games on the ground and four in which he reached the mark in both categories.
Defensively, the Tigers will feature a completely new lineup as only Wyatt Buhr (52) returns among the top dozen tacklers from the state championship team.
Delta is almost the opposite of La Junta as they must completely rebuild the offense but should be solid on defense early on.  The Panthers lost their top passer, top two rushers and top five receivers from last year’s 8-3 club and those players totaled over 4,000 yards of offense.  Defensively, Josh Reeder (76 tackles), Logan Church (71), Jacob Wear (52), Cameron Schaal and Gerardo Muniz (both with 51 tackles) all return.
Somewhat in the same boat is Resurrection Christian.  The Cougars are ranked sixth to open the new season but will feature a completely revamped lineup.  The biggest loss is Brin Hayden, a senior QB who led the Cougars in passing yard, rushing yards, tackles and tied for the lead in sacks.  Most of the other skill position leaders from last year also graduated as Kyle Lueck (112 yards) is the top returning rusher and Zane Zuhlke the top receiver (seven receptions).
Those two will lead a solid Cougars defense however.  Zuhlke registered 110 tackles as a sophomore and Lueck is next in line among returnees with 79 tackles.  Kyle Hecker (64) and Ryan Hecker (63) are also back on that side of the ball.
The remaining five teams in the pre-season rankings, Classical Academy, Sterling, D’Evelyn, Faith Christian and Platte Valley all return starting QB’s which should allow them to stay in the playoff and championship hunt.
Playing their first year in Class 2A, Classical Academy finished 9-2 before a loss to Kent Denver (27-24 in OT) ended their campaign in the state quarterfinals.  Cade Bethany is back to direct the offense but will do so under new coach Justin Rich who replaces David Bervig at the Titans’ helm.  Bethany threw for 1,621 yards and 19 TD’s as a junior and was second on the team in rushing with 550 yards and seven scores.  He also has a nice group of receivers returning as Brayden Luft (20), John Bull (18), Jenson Hall (14), Joshua Frankmore (14) and Trevor Winter (12) combined for 78 catches a year ago.
The top three tacklers for the Titans all graduated but it was a deep unit last season and returnees include Donovan Pacht (68 tackles), Brady Miller (67) and Alec Day (55).
The biggest loss though may be kicker Austin Carlson.  The senior booted touchbacks on 69 of his 79 kickoffs and averaged 39 yards a punt.  The now Division One kicker was perfect on all 49 extra point attempts and made 13 of 23 field goal attempts including a 51-yarder.  Such a kicker is difficult if not impossible to replace.
Bodie Hume begins his third year as starting quarterback in Sterling on Friday against Resurrection Christian.  He tossed 16 touchdown passes as a junior and totaled over 16-hundred yards.  His top two receivers also join him in the lineup as Isaac Harris (31 receptions / 384 yards) and Christian Rose (31-362) look for bigger numbers in 2017.
The schedule is again difficult for the Tigers who face D’Evelyn, Classical Academy and Eaton following Resurrection Christian.  Last year, they opened 0-3 but regrouped to win their final six games and claim a league championship.
D’Evelyn (8-3) had three QB’s play significant minutes last season but two of them have graduated likely leaving the job to Chad Dines.  He started the final six games of the year and totaled an even 1,000 yards with 16 touchdowns.  He also ended the year second on the team with 289 yards rushing.  Like Hume in Sterling, Dines also has a nice set of receivers coming back.  Four caught at least 20 passes a year ago led by Cody Bell (25) for 506 yards and four touchdowns.
Another important returnee for the Jags is Peter Flack.  A first team all-state player, Flack is a factor on both lines of scrimmage.  He helps protect Dines on offense and defensively led the Jags with 104 tackles a year ago.  He’s joined on the list of defensive returnees by Mason Hogan (50 tackles) and Jack Vannice (47).
Faith Christian (6-3) also experienced improvement throughout the season as their young signal caller Isaiah Kroll continued to get better.  A freshman starter, Kroll ended the campaign with 1,327 yards passing and 13 touchdowns. With the loss of leading rusher Eliijah Durrett (781 yards), Kroll may be asked to do even more this year.  He gets help from Jonah Gardner who returns after leading the Eagles with 28 catches and four touchdowns.  Another developing threat is Clayton Barden who ran for 200 yards as a freshman.
The top three tacklers from last season also return for Faith Christian.  That list includes Ryan Muniz (83 stops), Ty Ritter (67) and Jordan Abbot (38).  The Eagles are the defending Flatirons champions and will likely again battle D’Evelyn for that honor this year.
#10 Platte Valley also worked through the 2016 campaign with a young quarterback in Trevon Wehrman.  The junior finished his first season as a starter with impressive numbers; 1,356 yards passing and 1,180 yards rushing with a combined 26 touchdowns.  Bigger numbers are possible this year as the Broncos also welcome back pass catchers Zach Waite (39 receptions), Ernesto Rios (32), Brendan Bunting (22) and Dustin Horn (15).
The Broncos’ defense is also in good hands with returnees Eric Smith, Kaleb Johnson and Sebastian Zender.  Smith recorded 75 tackles and Johnson 73.  Johnson though hauled in nine interceptions and Zender added four picks.
Nine other teams received votes in pre-season polls issued by CHSAA including Manitou Springs, Alamosa, Eaton and Machebeuf.  Manitou Springs (6-4) lost their final three games of 2016 but should stay in the Tri Peaks mix with the return of Cole Sienknecht who led the Mustangs in passing (924 yards) and rushing (980) as a junior.  Alamosa (5-5) is coming off a second straight playoff appearance and could rely on the running tandem of Angelo Ramirez (468 yards) and Blaine Wuckert (363) early as a new quarterback is developed.
Eaton won six games in 2016 but didn’t make the playoffs.  A non-conference schedule that included down years by Brush (1-8) and Lamar (2-7) hurt their normally strong RPI rating.  The Reds return plenty of offensive weapons in seniors Austin Coalson (840 yards — 12 TD’s passing), Travis Cunningham (664 yards rushing), Jake Sandau (523), Evan Anderson (16 catches) and Jason Landen (15).
Machebeuf also missed the playoffs despite winning seven games.  None of those wins came against playoff teams so the Buffs were left out of the bracket.  QB Daniel Francis returns after throwing for 954 yards and 19 TD’s as a junior.  He’s joined by RB Fernando Chavez who gained a team best 719 yards a year ago.
Weld Central (8-2) and Basalt (7-3) are coming off best seasons in their recent history.  Both lost in the first round of the playoffs as the Rebels fell to Kent Denver and the Longhorns to D’Evelyn.  Weld Central returns RB Andrew Younger (622 yards) and WR Devante Fleming (20 receptions) and Basalt welcomes back 2nd leading receiver Raul Torres (23 catches) and Noah Williams who could replace Alex Alberto in the backfield.  Alberto led Basalt in rushing as a junior last year but his family moved to Texas during the off-season.  Both clubs though must develop new signal callers.