All but one of last year’s six state champions was chosen by coaches as the top team in the preseason for their respective classification. Still, while all reigning champs are equal, some are more equal than others.
Who’s in the best situation to defend their crown in 2016? Here’s a breakdown from most likely to least likely to go home happy when the last down is played.
BELFRY (CLASS 3A)
Chances to repeat: Extremely favorable
Whatever they’re feeding the boys in Pike County, they might want to get more of it. The Pirates feature four senior linemen — Cole Bentley, Austin Dotson, Rayquan Horton and Jordan Scott — who will play Division I football after trying to secure the mountain power’s fourth straight championship. Of its six Associated Press all-state selections last season, five are back (Austin Woolum and Devin Varney, in addition to Bentley, Dotson and Horton). Its toughest challengers last season — Boyle County, Central, Corbin and Lexington Catholic, whom it blanked in last year’s finals — will likely be its toughest challengers this season; barring significant injuries, there’s little reason to think Belfry won’t be ready for any of them.
BOWLING GREEN (CLASS 5A)
Chances to repeat: Very favorable
After a misstep in 2014, the Purples came back with authority to win their fourth title in five years. While fellow Western Kentucky powers Owensboro and Christian County could play spoiler, Bowling Green has dominated its half of the state the last five years and has the athletes to keep it up. Jamale Carothers sports multiple Division I offers and should make for an intriguing Mr. Football candidate after totaling more than 3,500 yards of total offense as a junior. Offensive players De’Angelo Wilson, Chazz Tooley and Clark Payne will play collegiatly, as will Dalan Cofer, an all-state defensive lineman who was named MVP of last year’s finals. Need further convincing? Justice Dingle, a junior linebacker with offers from Kentucky, Louisville and Tennessee, transferred to Bowling Green from Murfreesboro, Tenn., and has already been ruled eligible.
SOUTH WARREN (CLASS 4A)
Chances to repeat: Favorable
Despite returning only five starters from a team that made mincemeat of Class 4A, coaches like the Spartans’ chances of playing for another title in their own city. Perhaps some of that respect is due to a perception that South Warren — which made a jump from Class 3A to 4A in the latest realignment — is still playing at a level below its enrollment. Next season the Spartans will join Bowling Green in Class 5A, and chances are good that they’ll do so as back-to-back 4A champs.
PIKEVILLE (CLASS A)
Chances to repeat: Somewhat favorable
The graduation of powerhouse running back Daric Pugh and 11 other seniors will make the Panthers’ road westward tougher than it was a season ago, but they’re not the only team in the small-school field that lost big-time talent. Paintsville — their biggest threat in the east lately — lost 11 seniors of its own, among them Kash Daniel. Beechwood, with whom Pikeville battled for the crown, also saw a big chunk of quality seniors move on. Russellville may prove to be the biggest hurdle to a repeat, as it brings back the most among last year’s state semifinalists. Pikeville quarterback/linebacker Wyatt Battaile got valuable experience as a sophomore last season and could make a huge leap in 2016.
MAYFIELD (CLASS 2A)
Chances to repeat: Fair
It seems like a slight to say a team that’s been to seven straight finals — six in Class A before jumping up to 2A last season — and won four in that stretch only has a “fair” chance of repeating, especially with an underrated talent like Trajon Bright in the backfield as a senior. The Cards also bring back their two leading tacklers (Kincer Arnett and Kyle Hurt) and Landon Arnett, who threw 38 touchdowns in 2015. Still, it’s hard to look at the 2A landscape and think it’ll be a cakewalk. Powerful standbys like DeSales, Louisville Christian, Newport Central Catholic and Danville won’t lie down, nor will talented up-and-comers like Butler County, Glasgow and Lexington Christian.
MALE (CLASS 6A)
Chances to repeat: Not favorable
“I don’t get no respect.” Maybe it’s a bit overblown to say the Bulldogs haven’t earned the state’s respect — they went undefeated, decimated opponents by an average of nearly 40 points a game and were ranked eighth in the country by last season’s end. But, the coaches tabbed Male second behind Trinity in this year’s preseason poll. The Bulldogs lost 20 starters, 16 of whom went on to play in college, so it’s fair to wonder if the next wave is ready to step up. No one expects Male to be as dominant on defense as it was in 2015, but returnees/Division I prospects Stephon Mayes and Nathan Hobbs give valuable experience to a unit Coach Chris Wolfe thinks “could be very good because of its speed.”