The new football season brings with it a season of change for many area teams.
But with all the modifications in personnel, classification, districts and even coaches, how much will really be different?
Simple answer. Not much.
Take a look.
Is La Crosse still a favorite to represent the west in the Class 2-1A title game, despite playing again in the district with the likes of Oakley and Plainville? Yes. Same as the last three seasons. The Leopards are the favorite.
Does a change in districts mean Victoria becomes an underdog in its own district? Not really. The Knights are still a potential favorite, along with Thunder Ridge -- just as they have been for several seasons now.
Does a change in the guard at Oakley with Ty Pfannenstiel mean expectations have changed? No. Oakley still is in the hunt to challenge La Crosse. The Plainsmen expect to do just that, and rightfully so. The same could be said in Sharon Springs, where former quarterback Jeff Hennick takes the reins as head coach. The expectation is the Wildcats will figure into the Eight-Man Division II playoffs somehow.
Not much has changed for Hoxie, either, other than a switch to Eight-Man Division II. They're still a favorite there, as they were in Division I.
Does a switch to the MCL mean Thomas More Prep-Marian -- the league's largest school -- is going to become a powerhouse? Not likely. At least, not right away. This year's Monarchs football team, while improved, still will face the same growing pains as it tries to continue an uphill climb -- now in a tradition-heavy league.
Does a switch to 4A Division I mean big things are coming for Hays High? Not at first glance, but only time will tell.
To further illustrate how those changes really haven't had an effect, here's a rundown of things I expect for the 2014 season.
Top five area teams (in order of postseason likelihood)
1. La Crosse -- This should be a no-brainer for anyone paying attention. The Leopards have made 11 straight playoff appearances. Of all the area teams that are likely to make the playoffs, La Crosse stands the best shot at playing for a state championship. The most amazing thing about La Crosse is each season it seems new weapons step in to take the place of graduated stars, and often times do it better.
2. Thunder Ridge -- Trent Rietzke is going to headline this team just because of the sheer numbers he is capabile of putting up. But what makes Thunder Ridge a deep threat for the playoffs is the guys up front. Thunder Ridge likely will have one of the most dominant lines in eight-man, and the game is won in the trenches.
3. Victoria -- All the skill guys are back from a 10-1 state quarterfinal season. If the coaching staff works with some young linemen and they progress in a hurry, look out. St. John's-Tipton might have something to say about it, but I think the winner between Victoria and Thunder Ridge is likely contending for a state championship.
4. Hays High -- New coach, new class, new district. These changes will do Hays High some good, but they are still a bit on the bubble. Who knows when running into teams like tradition-rich McPherson and Buhler in district play. However, the Indians could suffer some bumps and bruises against teams like Garden City and Dodge City.
5. Hoxie -- In Eight-Man Division II now, Hoxie should prove a formidable opponent in district play, and in the playoffs. They would do the same in Division I.
The don't-be-surprised group
1. Plainville -- Sure, the Cardinals are in a district that includes La Crosse and Oakley, but it wouldn't shock me at all to see Plainville overtake Oakley for the second spot in the district behind La Crosse. They have just enough talent with some good returning linemen.
2. Oberlin-Decatur Community -- The Red Devils were a salty program in Class 2-1A, and they'll have good numbers now as an eight-man team. With some depth at each position, they could make a postseason push.
3. Norton -- Colleagues have looked at me funny when I said Norton is probably the MCL favorite. But with what the Bluejays return, and what sounds like a talented younger group, I might not be too far off.
4. Osborne -- Feels a little odd to not have a defending eight-man champ in the top five list, but like it or not, the Bulldogs lost quite a bit with graduation. Still, Jake Tiernan is a talented quarterback and he'll have some weapons at his disposal. They play in a tough district.
5. Wallace County -- Like Osborne, last year's Division II runner-up lost quite a bit with graduation and has a new coach. That coach, though, knows a great deal about success in Sharon Springs. He quarterbacked the 2007 team that won a state championship in just two quarters.
Players to watch (no particular order)
* Alex Delton, QB, Hays High -- A ton of hype surrounds the Kansas State University commit. The Indians hope he's surrounded by talented receivers in Bo Black's spread offense. While Delton is high-profile, I think there is a talented supporting cast that should help him along.
* Jack Garcia, QB, La Crosse -- A three-year starter for the Leopards, it's hard to imagine he can top what he did in 2013, but he seems a more confident QB now as a senior.
* Trent Rietzke, RB, Thunder Ridge -- The speedy back has a big line in front of him, and great playmaking ability. Big numbers should be coming.
* Ryan Kuhn, OL/DL, Oakley -- Known more for his defense, Kuhn is a tough one to run against, and he can be a dominant pass rusher.
* Sheldon Schmidt, FB/DE, La Crosse -- Just an overall competitor, and he's moving into the backfield for the Leopards after a knee injury sidelined him most of last season. He'll probably have college coaches in the stands most of the season.
* Connor Katt, RB/DB, Hoxie -- A returning HDN Super-11 selection, Katt looks to handle more of a workload in Hoxie's offense.
* Sean Lee, RB/LB, Ellis -- He was Ellis' biggest offensive weapon as a junior quarterback last year. He moves to a position that's more natural, and he will again be the top playmaker for the Railers.
* Bryan Dome, RB/LB, Victoria -- The amount of playmakers the Knights have could cut into Dome's carries a little bit, but every time he gets the ball, you know something positive is going to happen.
* Jake Tiernan, QB, Osborne -- Will be interesting to see what he does with more of the load on his shoulders, offensively, with the graduation of Maverick LeRock and Kenton Ubelaker -- both of whom are at Fort Hays State University.
* Hayden Friend, RB/DB, Plainville -- He led Plainville's rushing attack as a freshman. The Cardinals seemingly are better on the line, and Friend could be counted on as an even bigger threat in the offense.