Here's our best guess at the state's top teams as we head into the 2022 season. Prep for the first week of games with our complete football preview embedded below, and find our rankings rundown for all nine classes further down the page:
3. Northern Valley
Notes: We opted not to do a 6-Man Top Five in the magazine because it's very difficult to get a read on the newly expanded classification given the influx of new teams. Further, 6-Man will be impacted by the health of one player far more than any other classification. If the quarterback for a team goes down to injury and there is not an adequate back-up, it will massively affect that team's fortunes. Cunningham appears to be a strong favorite for the top of the classification after finishing as runner-up to Natoma a year ago and the trio of Trey DeWeese, Luke McGuire and Lane Halderson all return as key skill players. In the old 6-Man format, prior to this year's adoption by KSHSAA, the postseason was played in a tournament format that included a third place game. Ashland edged Northern Valley in the third place game a year ago and both teams return plenty of experience and talent. Natoma saw a trio of key players move on from last year's Wild West Bowl champions in Kayden Martinez, Derek George, and Tracen Frye, but Javon Letsch should be one of the top players in 6-Man this season. Cheylin's junior QB Logan McCarty may be the best player in 6-Man and if he stays healthy he gives the Cougars a chance to compete. Centre, Peabody-Burns, Tescott, and Waverly all look like former 8-Man teams that could make an immediate impact at the 6-Man level.
3. Thunder Ridge
Notes: Axtell returns virtually everything from a dominant State Championship team a year ago including standout QB Isaac Detweiler, but Canton-Galva makes the move down to 8-Man II after a great four-season run of success at 8-Man I and should challenge Axtell for east side supremacy behind quarterback Garrett Maltbie and receiver Jett Vincent. Thunder Ridge also returns a loaded team after a lopsided loss to Axtell in the semifinals a year ago. The good news for the Longhorns is a return to the west side of the playoff bracket this season where Victoria and Dighton are the other leading contenders. Hanover's start to the season is going to be very tough with Clifton-Clyde, new 8-Man team Ell-Saline, and Osborne in the first three weeks, and a Week 6 match-up with the same Axtell team they lost to twice a season ago. Osborne returns Connor Schurr and Doak Guttery, but must stay healthy and manage an eastern playoff bracket that is likely tougher than the west.
1. Little River
3. Chase County
5. Hill City
Notes: Little River is a strong favorite in this classification thanks to the return of skill players Braxton Lafferty, Rylan Konen, Grant Stephens, and Braden Young. LR does need to replace a trio of All-State linemen, but coach Kevin Ayers is one of the best coaches in state history and the departure of Canton-Galva to 8-Man II and Clifton-Clyde to the west side of the playoff bracket removed a pair of big obstacles to a repeat trip to the title game. Chase County welcomes back a loaded squad led by seniors Mitch Budke and Cal Kohlmeier and junior Brock Griffin, but must survive a brutal district that includes Burlingame, Madison, and former 1A 11-Man power Lyndon. Clifton-Clyde will have to overcome challenges from teams like Meade (last year's surprise 8-Man I champs), Hill City and Wichita County, and perhaps more importantly, they'll have to take the next step in winning a big game late in the season as part of a potential deep playoff run. Goessel, Ell-Saline, South Sumner, and Trego should also field potential contenders.
1. St. Mary's-Colgan
2. St. Marys
3. Smith Center
Notes: The east side of the bracket appears to again be the class of the classification this season, thanks in large part to St. Mary's Colgan and St. Marys dropping from 2A. That pair of experienced and battle-tested squads will challenge two-time defending 1A Champs Olpe for east side supremacy while Smith Center and Inman appear to be the favorites in the west, though Smith Center could have some growing pains as standout senior Jake Sasse returns to the lineup after missing all of last year and then suffering a devastating hand injury in the offseason that could limit his versatility. Inman's district is no cake walk with Conway Springs and Hutch-Trinity fielding strong squads. Wabaunsee, Sedgwick, Oakley, and Plainville all appear to be contenders in the west side of the bracket as well. Centralia welcomes a new coach in Roger Holthaus - who is expected to continue the Panthers' tradition of success - while Troy and Jeff Co. North should field strong squads as well.
1. Southeast of Saline
3. Nemaha Central
Notes: Southeast of Saline was arguably the second best team in 3A last fall and while they graduated a loaded offensive line and standout linebacker Matthew Rodriguez the skilled trio of Jake and Luke Gebhardt and Michael Murray provide as talented a group of skill players the classification will offer. Rossville and Nemaha Central appear poised to battle for the right to represent the east side of the bracket in the 2A title game, though Sabetha, Humboldt, and Osage City could all have something to say about it, while Beloit and Kingman could challenge Southeast of Saline on the west side after returning experienced squads from the semifinals a year ago. Hoisington is also a contender on the west side behind a huge offensive line, but new faces need to emerge in the backfield after the graduation of Legend Robinson, now at Hutch Community College.
3. Rock Creek
5. Wichita Collegiate
Notes: Andale is again the heavy-favorite in the classification and coach Dylan Schmidt is laying the groundwork for a historically successful run after posting a 61-2 record and the last three 3A titles in just five seasons as head coach. Andale seldom has a standout but rather fields a squad of talented and violent players who are backed up by even more talented and violent players. Riley Marx is one of the state's top college prospects in both football and track and he is joined by seven other seniors with starting experience. Wichita Collegiate is the leading candidate to challenge the Indians this fall behind senior K-State commit Wesley Fair. The east side of the bracket is much deeper with Holton, Rock Creek, Topeka-Hayden, and possibly Perry-Lecompton all equipped to be the east side representative in the state game, but will any of them have what it takes to knock off Andale?
1. St. Thomas Aquinas
2. St. James Academy
3. Bishop Miege
Notes: The story with 4A is the addition of Aquinas to a classification that is already dominated by the state's private schools. St. James Academy and Bishop Miege have combined to win the past seven state titles and both teams return plenty of talent to again compete with the best squads in any classification in the state. Even though Aquinas lost standouts Maxxwell Ford (QB) and Sa'o Siavi'i (DL) to Lee's Summit North, senior running back Sean Carroll and 13 other experienced starters return to try and stake their claim as the private school power in the KC Metro. Chanute, Basehor-Linwood, Eudora, and KC Piper also return experience and talent to try and knock off the "Big 3," leaving the eastern side of the bracket superior to the west from top to bottom. Graduation losses at Buhler and Andover Central leave experienced McPherson and Wamego (who will be without standout QB Hayden Oviatt for the first few games) the favorites in the west.
1. Mill Valley
3. Kapaun Mt. Carmel
4. Bishop Carroll
5. Blue Valley Southwest
Notes: Thanks in part to the departure of Wichita Northwest to 6A all signs point to a rematch between three-time defending 5A State Champion Mill Valley and star-studded Maize led by top prospect Avery Johnson and skill players Bryce Cohoon, Justin Stephens, and DaeShaun Carter, but the Eagles will have a tough road to a return trip to the title game. Kapaun will again be a factor under Weston Schartz thanks to the return of Omari Elias and Will Anciaux, while Bishop Carroll will undoutbedly find a way to reload. Blue Valley Southwest could be poised for a playoff run behind quarterback Dylan Dunn and an experienced receiving corps. This classification appears somewhat top-heavy with the top four teams likely capable of distancing themselves from the field.
2. Wichita Northwest
4. Blue Valley Northwest
5. Junction City
Notes: Derby enters the year on a mission in spite of losing just one game a season ago. It's the way in which they lost that 6A State Championship game to Blue Valley Northwest which will likely provide the motivation for veteran coach Brandon Clark's squad after his Panthers struggled to keep pace with the Huskies falling 41-21. The Panthers lose an outstanding group of offensive linemen but Norte Dame commit Dylan Edwards is back to keep opposing defenses on their heels and the defense returns an excellent front seven. Wichita Northwest moves up to 6A this season and has a pair of outstanding running backs in LJ Phillips and Cencere Thompson along with quality pieces on the offensive and defensive fronts. Lawrence graduated talent at the offensive skill positions but the transfer of speedy Highland Park running back Tyrell Reed should help reduce the pressure on a new signal caller. Clint Rider capped his five-year building project at Blue Valley Northwest with the school's first ever state championship last fall but lost 15 starters to graduation. Standout senior running back Grant Stubblefield will have to carry the offense early. Randall Zimmerman enters his 29th season at Junction City with an experienced group, as does seventh year Blue Valley West coach Josh Koerkenmeier. Washburn Rural and Olathe West also look like contenders in the classification.
Of course this early in the season a lot of this is a guessing a game and certainly additional teams will emerge.
Good luck to all the players and coaches this season, best wishes on staying healthy and achieving your goals, and to everyone in the stands, let the coaches coach, the officials officiate, and the players play!