Preseason rankings are a guessing game, perhaps now more than ever given the increased frequency of student-athlete transfers in the offseason, but it's fun to try and predict who is going to finish the season on top.
As a former coach, I'm a little conflicted about producing preseason rankings. I can tell you definitively that players can be impacted by what's written and reported about them. Different teams have differing abilities to meet or exceed expectations.
Coaching history, returning experience, standout players at key positions, and schedule are a few key considerations that go into the rankings, but this year feels like the most wide-open for all classifications in recent memory. Heading into last season I was confident that Mill Valley would win 5A, one of the Big 3 private school powers (Aquinas, Miege, St. James) would win 4A, Andale would win 3A, St. Marys would be at least a semifinalist, Little River would at least make the 8-Man I final, Axtell would win 8-Man II with their toughest game against Canton-Galva at some point, and Cunningham would win 6-Man. Of course I also didn't think Manhattan, Gardner-Edgerton, or Wichita County would finish in the Top 5 – guess they showed me, huh?
Most of the most experienced teams are likely just a couple players away from being at the top or the bottom of the rankings, and there are many factors which are uncontrollable including injuries, weather, depth, officiating (not a criticism of officials but it's a fact that a couple of missed calls here or there can impact a season), and the most significant factor in the overall success or failure of an athletic program, socioeconomic status of the region around the school system, a seldom referenced, but ultra-important factor, and a topic for another time.
Regardless of where your team lands in the predictions that follow, the former coach in me wants to implore each player to be coachable, do their absolute best on and off the field, and embrace their role on the team and let the chips fall where they may.
NOW, let's take a look at the Kansas Pregame preseason rankings and see if we can guess who will end up on top.
This year, the classifications from top-to-bottom just feel deeper than in the past. While 4A still appears as though it will be dominated by the private schools, graduation losses at Mill Valley, Andale, and Axtell don't leave them as the sure-bet repeat champions of the past, though we think they're still the favorites.
Brian Thomas contributed significantly to this preview by compiling much of it using the preview capsules from the 2023 Football Preview.
The first KSHSAA sanctioned season of 6-Man football started with a bang and ended in “storybook” fashion, as CUNNINGHAM, after a hiatus from football between 2015 and 2019 due to low numbers, took home the first ever KSHSAA sanctioned 6-Man state championship with a father-son combo of coach Lance McGuire and his son Luke sharing the experience. The Wildcats for the most part dominated their schedule, with a 38-30 season opening win against Ashland, as well as a 38-16 win in the state championship game in a rematch with the Blue Jays, serving as their only close calls. Cunningham has back some key pieces from that 12-0 squad this fall, including McGuire, who had over 1,200 yards combined rushing and passing and led the team with five interceptions on defense. Juniors Dagim Reed, Luke Albers, Will Wegerer, Trent Schnittker, and senior Jack Ruckle also return after making an impact on both sides of the ball last year. The Wildcats did lose the All-State combo of Lane Halderson and Trey DeWeese to graduation.
Finishing 9-2 as the state runner-up, ASHLAND isn’t likely to sit idly by as Cunningham looks to repeat in 2023. Head coach Ben Fox returns a deep roster of talent, including All-State seniors Landen McPhail, Kale Harris, Britt Grigsby, and Trae Vera. McPhail was dominant on offense and in the defensive secondary, combining for 1,763 yards rushing and receiving with 33 TDs, and four interceptions on defense. Grigsby threw for over 1,000 yards and 17 TDs and had three sacks defensively, while Harris and Vera wreaked havoc defensively. Other starters back include juniors Lathan McPhail, Peyton Betschart, and senior Gus Hink.
Along with winning the 6-Man Wild West Bowl back in 2020, CHEYLIN is a bit of a recurring character in the state playoffs. In 2022, much like Ashland against Cunningham, the Cougars lost two games, but ironically both of those came against the Blue Jays - 50-28 in Week 3 and 78-34 in the state-semifinals - leaving them at 10-2. Besides those losse,s and a 49-48 nailbiter against a talented Northern Valley team in Week 4, Cheylin won the remainder of their games in dominant fashion, including scores of 53-7 over Moscow in the second round of the playoffs and a 51-6 over Ingalls in the third, before their loss to Ashland in the semifinals. All-State seniors Logan McCarty, Pablo Bermudez, Brady Ketzner, Connor McPherson, and junior Harley McPherson, along with juniors John Paul Sabatka and Cooper Paugh, give the Cougars a foundation they can continue building on in 2023.
NORTHERN VALLEY finished 8-3 and lost two of their games - against Cheylin and Tescott - by just a point in each contest. Besides that the Huskies dominated, particularly on defense where they held six teams to seven points or less. Ultimately, they were knocked out in the quarterfinals against Ashland, 68-20. Fifth-year head coach Marvin Gebhard has a tall task in replacing All-State selections Kai Cox and Foster Brands, but gets back senior Kenton Thalheim, Jeremiah Hansen, Brody Preston, Jason Cox, Gabe Rudd, and sophomore Gavin Thalheim, and also will benefit from the transfer of Trego senior Nolan Kinderknecht.
WAVERLY dropped down to 6-Man after going 7-2 in 8-Man II the year prior, the best among schools making that change. Unsurprisingly, they made a big splash, running the table right up until the state semifinals where they fell 60-12 to Cunningham, leaving them at 11-1 on the season. Head coach Nick Fraenza’s defense was stingy throughout the year, holding seven teams to less than three TDs - a feat much tougher in 6-Man than other classifications. All-State seniors Ben Meehan and Luke Bartley return alongside senior Carter Ohl and junior Colten Woodson, beyond that small core the Bulldogs have big cleats to fill after the Spring 2023 graduation of All-Staters Koy Myers and Brady Wallace.
TESCOTT was another team hit in key spots by graduation after a great year that saw them finish 9-2 in the quarterfinals after a 46-12 loss to Waverly - their other loss came against state champs Cunningham. Head coach Daymon Walker enters his 18th season overall, and second coaching 6-Man, with a scrappy core of All-State seniors Justin Parsley and Carter Peters, as well as senior Dawson Lee and sophomore Charlie Phelps.
INGALLS ended up 6-3 after a loss to Cheylin in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. The Bulldogs had a dangerous offense led by All-State junior Langston Northern (1,638 rush yds, 30 TDs), scoring 100 points in a contest against Deerfield. Seniors Mikol Cohn, Layton Simon, Myron Floyd, Malachi Meader, and sophomore Dayshawn Dunnigan solidify a strong lineup. Cohn recorded 103 tackles and picked off two passes on defense, earning him an All-State nod as well.
GOLDEN PLAINS closed out last season at 3-7 after a second round exit and get back seniors Will Gruggerman, Landon Meier, juniors Josh Rath and Wyatt Amlong, and sophomores Diego Perez and Dylan Wark.
CENTRE closed out last year at 3-6, but have back plenty of experience with seniors Santiago Knepp, Gentri Holub, Riley Janow, Nick Krch, Kagan Brewer, and sophomores Kolby and Koltin Steiner.
For more reading, check out our 2023 Kansas Pregame Fall Edition at this link: Kansas Pregame Football Preview 2023