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8-Man DI preseason football rankings breakdown

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  • Wichita County rolled to an undefeated 8-Man, Division I state title last season, the school's first ever football state championship. (Photo: Everett Royer/
    Wichita County rolled to an undefeated 8-Man, Division I state title last season, the school's first ever football state championship. (Photo: Everett Royer/

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.

8-Man, Division I

1. Wichita County
2. Lyndon
3. Meade
4. Quinter
5. West Elk

It was a dominant state championship season for WICHITA COUNTY in 8-Man I a year ago. The Indians cruised to their first-ever state title, going a perfect 13-0 by scoring at least 54 points in every game along the way. That included a 54-36 victory over Little River in the final — a rematch of the 2020 championship game that Little River won. Although Wichita County lost players such as dual-threat quarterback Erhik Hermosillo on offense and leading tackler Cordell Brown on defense, the Indians still have plenty of experience back to be a serious threat again this season. Head coach Brant Douglas, who enters his sixth season with the program (47-9), welcomes back junior running back Khris Hermosillo and senior tight end Colton Harbin. Hermosillo rushed for 1,251 yards and 23 TDs, while Harbin was on the receiving end of 24 catches for 478 yards and nine scores. Defensively, the Indians return six of their top nine tacklers from a unit that held eight opponents to 12 points or less, including five shutouts. Hermosillo, Harbin, Wyatt Gardner, Christopher Michel, and Juan Tapia provide a fearsome fivesome back on defense.

To make another run to the championship game, LITTLE RIVER has some work to do after the loss of a load of talent to graduation over the past two seasons. Head coach Kevin Ayers, now in his sixth season at LRHS, has plenty of reason for optimism after posting a 43-7 record in his first five seasons in charge of the Redskins. Little River went 11-2 last season, finishing just short of its seventh state title in program history and second in three years. Three players are back in the lineup this season, including seniors Andrew Smith (TE/QB) and Carter Stansbury (OL/DL), and junior Ruxton Birdsong (OL). Smith is the team’s top returning receiver with 19 catches for 433 yards and nine touchdowns, while also recording 54 tackles a year ago. Ayers is one of the all-time great coaches in 8-Man history and he’ll likely have his squad ready come playoff time, but a fourth consecutive championship will likely be the toughest undertaking the coach has had in awhile.

Six starters return for LYNDON following last year’s 8-3 campaign that included an appearance in the sectional round of the playoffs. The Tigers welcome back senior running back Jalen Massey, who had 991 yards and 16 touchdowns, while senior linebacker Casten Wirth leads the defensive unit after posting 130 tackles last season. LHS will also benefit from the addition of Inman transfer Tanner Heckel, an All-Class 1A QB/D-back who accounted for nearly 2,000 yards of offense a year ago. The Tigers are again in a tough District 2, but Lyndon suffered far fewer losses to graduation than the other top teams in the district.

Capping off its fourth unbeaten regular season in program history, WEST ELK advanced to the postseason for the fourth straight season before falling to Lyndon, 42-38, in the bi-district round of the playoffs. Following an 8-1 season, the Patriots have the pieces in place for another strong season. Seven starters are back for head coach Chris Haag — the all-time winningest coach at WEHS (113-96) – as he enters his 23rd season on the sideline. Leading the way for the Patriots is junior Creyo Koop, who rushed for 1,129 yards and 24 TDs while posting 129 tackles at linebacker. The Patriots are heavy favorites in District 1 but a Week 3 non-district game at Central-Burden could be a good indicator of where the Patriots stand in the DI pecking order.

Despite finishing 4-6 a year ago, QUINTER pulled off one of the biggest upsets of 2022 with a Week 9 victory over District 5 champion Clifton-Clyde. Second-year head coach Cody Corwin has seven starters back from that squad, including all-league selections Lakin Getz, Dashiell Brown and Trace Kinderknecht. The Bulldogs will again play a tough schedule with Wallace County, Dighton, Hill City, and Hoxie all among the top teams in their respective classifications and St. Francis looking like an improved squad this fall.

After making a return to the 8-Man ranks for the first time in 30 years, ELL-SALINE posted a 6-3 mark a year ago. With head coach Joe Roche returning for his fourth season (14-15), the Cardinals will need to replace graduated QB Kade Wilson and running back Obed Ruiz. Six players are back in the lineup, including senior Ryder Dent, who was one of the state’s top tacklers with 109 stops last season at linebacker. The Cardinals struggled against the best teams on their schedule last fall dropping lopsided contests to Little River, Clifton-Clyde, and Hoxie. Moundridge and Hanover should both be improved opponents in Week 1 and 2 while the Week 3 game at Little River is a key non-district matchup for both teams.

BURLINGAME was just one win away from a trip to the championship game but dropped a 48-0 decision to eventual runner-up Little River in the sub-state round to cap off a 10-2 campaign. Jeff Slater (75-20) enters his 10th season with the Bearcats. Burlingame lost unanimous All-Lyon County League selections Colby Middleton, Matthew Heckman and Tyler Lockwod and will rely on the return of four starters to the lineup.

In Jeff Savage’s first season at CENTRAL of BURDEN, the Raiders went 5-4 and CHS has reason for optimism heading into 2023 with the return of eight starters, led by quarterback/free safety Jace Wunderlich. The senior passed for 1,700 yards and rushed for 625 while combining for 39 touchdowns. He was also a force on defense with 99 tackles and three interceptions.

After capturing the District 5 championship, CLIFTON-CLYDE had its season end abruptly with the loss to Quinter, finishing with a 7-2 record. Russ Steinbrock returns for his 23rd season (144-73) and he welcomes back seven players with starting experience. Leading the way is senior Trent Long, who had 850 yards rushing and 481 passing with a combined 24 touchdowns. On defense is junior linebacker Oliver Nobert with his 57 tackles.

All-State players Mitch Budke and Cal Kohlmeier are gone at CHASE COUNTY, and Derick Budke takes the coaching reins for the program, which will try to retool following a 9-2 campaign. The Bulldogs do have several returning players, including six players with starting experience. That includes seniors Emiliano Zuniga (OL/DL), Brock Griffin (RB/LB), Tucker Groh (WR/CB) and Micah Cauthers (TE/LB).

HILL CITY advanced to the sub-state round of the playoffs last year before capping off a 10-2 campaign with a 76-30 loss to eventual champion Wichita County. Head coach Travis Desbien, now in his seventh season (40-20), has four players back, led by senior quarterback Aiden Amrein, who had 1,624 yards passing and 555 rushing with 32 combined touchdowns.

Lance Baar returns for his 15th season at HOXIE, compiling a 95-45 record to date. The Indians are coming off a 7-3 season in which they lost to eventual state champion Wichita County (64-20) in the regional round. Four players are back as starters. Senior Jonathan Mader and junior Sam Watkins lead the defense after combining for 16 sacks last season.

Posting an unbeaten regular season, MACKSVILLE had its season end with a loss to Rawlins County in the regional round of the playoffs. Morgan Grippin takes over as head coach of the Mustangs following their 9-1 season. Junior running back Hector Gomez is the top returning player on offense, finishing with 799 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.

Former Council Grove and West Franklin head coach Nate Teichgraeber takes over at MADISON. Teichgraeber was an assistant under former coach Alex McMillian during last year’s 6-4 campaign that ended with a loss to eventual state runner-up Little River in the regional round. Senior Hayden Helm returns at quarterback and is one of the six starters back but the Bulldogs will miss the production of graduated speed merchant Bryson Turner.

MEADE reached the sectional round of the playoffs, closing out a 9-2 season with a 68-50 loss to Hill City. Clint Kuhns begins his second season as head coach of the Buffaloes and welcomes back 11 different players with starting experience. Senior Brock Keith returns after rushing for 930 yards and 17 touchdowns, while also posting 90 tackles on defense.

Sean Blosser’s first season in charge of the newly combined SOUTH SUMNER team resulted in a 9-1 record and an appearance in the regional round of the playoffs. The Outlaws lost two starters from its district championship team, most notably standout dual-threat QB Keiondre Smith, but still return plenty of experience. Senior tight end Jackson Risley had 246 yards receiving while also posting 128 tackles at linebacker.

Finishing as runner-up to South Sumner in District 3 was WICHITA INDEPENDENT. The Panthers went 8-2 and lost to Burlingame in the regional round of the playoffs. Leterius Ray returns for his third season in the program but must replace several key seniors lost to graduation. The offense will be led by quarterback Tatym Stainaker, running back Alvin Richard and tight end Grayson Jensen.

Brian Thomas contributed significantly to this preview by compiling much of it using the preview capsules from the 2023 Football Preview.

For more reading, check out our 2023 Kansas Pregame Fall Edition at this link: Kansas Pregame Football Preview 2023