In the Herald-Leader preseason poll of coaches, the reigning champion was voted the No. 1 team coming into the year for each class. That’s not too surprising — in Kentucky, the best teams from year to year don’t usually change much.
But that doesn’t mean conversations aren’t happening about who’s capable of knocking off the kings. Let’s ponder the chances of last year’s champions staying atop their thrones.
TRINITY (CLASS 6A)
Profile: The Shamrocks returned to glory with ease last season and are favored by the coaches to stay on top, as only one first-place vote was cast for another team (Scott County). Trinity’s Rondale Moore (2018 wide receiver) and Stephen Herron (2019 defensive end) are tabbed by 247Sports as four-star prospects and the best in-state players in their respective classes. Moore has committed to Texas and Herron’s offer list includes the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Texas along with UK and Louisville.
Biggest threats: This year’s cross-bracketing would allow for an all-Louisville championship game, and Trinity (district four) would have the benefit of not having to meet Male or St. Xavier (district three) until that final game. Pleasure Ridge Park will trot out one of its best squads and will be in the mix in district three, too. Scott County projects to be the most significant threat outside of Louisville. The Cardinals return a bevy of playmakers on both sides of the ball and boast one of the state’s best linemen in Bryan Hudson.
Repeatability: 95 percent
BOWLING GREEN (CLASS 5A)
Profile: “When you have won five of the last six titles, anything else would be a bit of a disappointment. Might not be realistic but that is the world we live in now.” Purples head coach Kevin Wallace succintly summed up the expectations for his club, which has been one of the state’s premier programs this decade. Bowling Green lost Mr. Football Jamale Carothers to graduation, but it boasts another player of the year contender in linebacker Justice Dingle, a four-star recruit with offers from Kentucky, Louisville and Tennessee. He’ll spearhead a defense with several returning starters. Running back Vito Tisdale, a 6-foot-1 sophomore running back, also has offers from UK, U of L and Tennessee.
Biggest threats: Christian County, which hasn’t picked up a win in the rivalry since 2010, is considered the closest threat to Bowling Green’s throne. The two will be favored to face off in the regional finals. Class 5A newcomer South Warren could be a roadblock.
Repeatability: 70 percent
JOHNSON CENTRAL (CLASS 4A)
Profile: Since the switch to six classes, only two teams have repeated as champion in Class 4A: Boyle County and Highlands. The Golden Eagles have a solid opportunity to add their program to that list, especially now that South Warren is waging war in Class 5A. Geordan Blanton — the multi-sport star of the school’s athletic program — graduated but leading rusher Joe Jackson (2,049 yards and 31 TDs as a sophomore) and Riley Preece (who went 62-of-87 passing for 1,254 yards and 15 TDs as a freshman starter) are two strong cornerstones around which to build a repeat bid.
Biggest threats: Hopkinsville was considered a threat from the west but the shocking transfer of Jalen Johnson, a quarterback on the verge of several passing records, a week before August practices made the Tigers more of an uncertainty. Franklin-Simpson, whom Johnson Central crushed in last year’s finals, returns its leading rusher (Saul Brady, who scored a team-high 20 TDs).
Repeatability: 70 percent
BELFRY (CLASS 3A)
Profile: It speaks volumes about Belfry’s program that it could graduate four Division I linemen and still be considered the favorite, by the coaches, to win a fifth straight championship. Those four All-State first-teamers are gone, but leading rusher Derek Wellman — a second-team selection at running back — is in the backfield as a senior and could be a 1,000-yard rusher this season (he was 30 yards shy in 2016). Taveon Hunter was effective last season — 799 yards and 11 touchdowns on only 54 carries — and probably will shoulder more of a load as a senior.
Biggest threats: This year Central, a regular finals opponent for the Pirates, could instead meet Belfry in the regional finals due to new cross-bracketing procedures. Corbin for the last two seasons has been considered a potential pitfall for the Pirates but were decimated each time in the state semifinals. The Redhounds boast 12 seniors, including Cameron Sizemore, a three-year starter at quarterback who passed for 2,706 yards last season. Boyle County, Lexington Catholic and Elizabethtown appear to be the most likely championship-game opponents.
Repeatability: 80 percent
LOUISVILLE CHRISTIAN (CLASS 2A)
Profile: Christian won its first state championship last year behind a balanced offense and a defense that allowed just 11.3 points per game. The Centurions’ top two rushers from last season graduated but junior Austin Carr will start for the third straight year at quarterback. Milton Wright, a two-way threat who led the team in receiving, is a junior too, as is Elijah Smith, whom Wright tied for the team lead in interceptions a year ago.
Biggest threats: Mayfield, a perennial contender, boasts two strong senior receivers in Jack Murrell and Jordan Harrison, a stout offensive line and an experienced unit of defensive backs. The Cardinals would host Louisville Christian, where their season ended a year ago, for a title-game berth. Danville and Lexington Christian waged some terrific battles in 2016, and if they meet for the regional championship, as anticipated, the winner will be favored to reach the finals.
Repeatability: 50 percent
BEECHWOOD (CLASS A)
Profile: The Tigers bring back Brayden Burch, a top-five quarterback in terms of passing yardage in Class A last season, as well as four critical members of the offensive line that protects him. James Davis, who had nearly 900 yards on 119 carries in 2016, will pick up more touches as a senior. “We are extremely fortunate to have many returning starters from the 2016 team,” head coach Noel Rash said. “These young men are talented, but none of that will matter if we don’t have the mental toughness needed to carry us through the offseason and each week of the season.”
Biggest threats: Could this be the year Paintsville breaks through? The last two seasons have ended early for the Tigers but they boast one of the state’s best players in Tyrese Allen, a West Virginia University commit, and would love to add a championship trophy to their spiffy new locker room. Hazard, which fell to Beechwood in last year’s finals, kept Paintsville at bay last year but would have to travel to Johnson County if the two were to meet in this year’s state semifinals. Kentucky Country Day and Pikeville also loom.
Repeatability: 60 percent