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1. Trinity – In 2011, with many local teams refusing to face them in non-district games, the Rocks were forced to schedule powerful teams from Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio to fill out their schedule. Trinity not only cruised to another 6A state championship, but they also blasted all of these nationally known programs – parlaying a difficult multi-state schedule into a national championship. The majority of a marvelous offensive line graduated, but many of the rest return, and they’re looking for an encore performance against an identical schedule. This team is loaded with a phenomenal, five D1 senior candidates: QB Travis Wright (3036 yds., 39 TDs), TB Dalyn Dawkins (1901 yds., 28 TDs), WR James Quick (1434 yds., 21 TDs), DE Jason Hatcher, and DB Ryan White. In addition, there is a boundless array of talent waiting in the wings for their chance to shine. Coach Bob Beatty’s Rocks have climbed Mt. Everest, with no plans to come down, while the rest of Kentucky 6A continues to meander in the foothills.

2. Saint Xavier – In 2011, for only the third time in the past 60 years, the Tigers suffered five defeats in one season. Their schedule was vicious, and it took its toll. However, as the season progressed, this youthful team improved greatly and closed out the regular season with a big victory over nationally ranked Cincinnati St. Xavier. With the combiation of six returning starters on each side of the ball, and the motivation to perform well for longtime Coach Mike Glaser (who will retire after this season), St. Xavier will provide a far greater test for the same cadre of powerful teams that populated its schedule in 2011. Returning backs, Charles Walker and Brandon Moore will lead the offensive charge behind a much stronger line than last season. There are even rumors of a polished passing attack. The Tigers will be very strong defensively, led by All-State candidates Deonte Clyborn (LB), Karl Roesler (DE), Patrick Semersheim (DB), and Lemondray Clemons (DB). Kicker/Punter Brad Schickel returns after converting seven field goals last year. I don’t know how much to read into it, but the coaches seem to be smiling a lot at practice.

3. Scott County - Jim McKee's Cardinals won 14 straight before running into the juggernaut that was Trinity in the KHSAA Championship game. Gone from last year's offense – a unit that averaged more than 46 PPG – are QB Ben Lawler (now at EKU), three interior linemen, and TE Nick Smith. OL Coach Scott Willard does have several veterans with which to work. This kind of returning experience is a rarity for Scott County, which has had to train its front seven on the job for the past few years. The top story on offense could very well be Lawler's replacement – SO Clay McKee (the oldest of the coach's three sons), who served as Lawler's backup in 2011. McKee's top receiving target will be JR Scott Daniel, who averaged 20+ YPC last year. If McKee does little more than handoff to an experienced group of RB’s, the SCHS wing-T ground game should be in good shape. Top rusher Dierius Dumphord (1200+ yards, 6.0 YPC, 20 TD) returns for his senior season, along with talented underclassmen Hunter Nelson, Kevo Edwards and Kevin Clausen. The defense will miss five of last year's top six tacklers, but leading stopper Damon Gray returns. An early season trip to Highlands might not indicate much about this year's Cardinal team, given that McKee's teams always seem to improve as the season unfolds.

4. Ballard - In 2011, the Bruins of Coach Mike Jackson started six sophomores and one freshman. The early season was a struggle, but that young team learned how to play and won four of its last six contests – including a near-upset of state runner-up Scott County. For 2012, experience is now on the plus side of the ledger for Ballard, as they return eight offensive starters and six defensive starters. Key players to watch this season include QB Tyler Owen (6'1, 185),WR Cam Lewis (6'3, 190), OL Joey Bloomfield (6'6, 295), WR Jimmy Brannon (5'9, 170), DB Dontez Byrd (6'0, 185), DL Nigel Bragg (6'2, 235), and OL/DL Joe Harris (5'11, 265). With experienced veterans returning in most areas, Ballard's main remaining concern is replacing the defensive line, which was populated with several seniors last season. Another tough early schedule (Riverside TN, Central, and Warren Central) should bring to light any weakness the Bruins need to correct before entering district play. If Ballard can show the experienced maturity to learn from mistakes instead of losing confidence, they have the ability to make a good run in the playoffs.

5. Eastern – The Eagles got over the hump last year with a 10-3 record, but they are still viewed as an enigma. Despite great talent – when they lost – they lost big. They fell to Butler 43-14, to Male 49-24, and to Scott County 52-14. New coach, Stephen Ruckman (who coached in Louisiana in 2011), has been charged with fielding a team that will produce a consistant effort week after week. Eastern retuens two of the top DB’s in Kentucky in Shane Fields (5-10, 180, 7 INT) and Jaylen Johnson (6-2, 195, 1 INT). Both Fields and Johnson will also man WR/RB positions. DeVonte Dawson and Jacob Stewart are talented returnees who will anchor both the OL and DL. Leading rusher, Ryan Watkins, also returns after gaining around 740 yards last year. If they can stay focused, there will be a lot of noise coming from Middletown this season.

6. Manual – The Crimsons reside in the toughest district in the state, with Trinity, St. X., and Male. And they have top quality teams such as Central, Butler, Ballard and PRP on their non-district schedule. Manual lost only three times in facing that gauntlet. Two of the losses were to Trinity, and one was a narrow seven point defeat to St. X. They return their leading rusher, Dishan Romine, who rambled for 1,188 yrds. and 10 TDs. Junior Mason Motley, who played a lot last season, will assume the starting QB role. Miles Thompson will be one of his main targets at WR. Senior DB Juwan Gardner, who had five interceptions and three TDs, will lead a strong defensive secondary. Michael Brewer and Josh Brentlinger will be hard-charging linebackers. Coach Oliver Lucas is looking to do no worse than a repeat of last season’s 9-3 success.

7. Butler – The Bears surprised everyone last season by advancing all the way to the state semi-finals before running into a big “Rock.” They lost their two leading rushers, but have a very promising replacement in junior Joe Brown. Jacob Morgan returns as a senior at QB, where he passed for 1,666 yds. and 15 TDs. One of Morgan’s favorite receivers, Tavaughn Morton, also returns to help the passing game. Derek Firkins and Stephen Lanham will, once again, anchor both lines. Coach Scott Carmody’s Bears have tasted success and have no intention of taking a step backward in 2012.

8. Ryle - The post-Travis Elliott era started early for the Ryle Raiders in 2011. The Raiders were hit hard with injuries, losing 13 starters by the end of the year. Despite the injuries, they managed a 7-5 record, losing to Boone County in the second round of the playoffs. Ryle seems to have gathered some steam heading into 2012. They have 21 seniors on the roster and approximately 70 players total – many of whom saw quite a bit of playing time last year. Ryle continues to play a tough schedule in 2012. Along with the district games (which are all key games) they travel to Columbus to play DeSales, then Colerain and Highlands will make the trip to CR Borland stadium. The overall offense looks strong, as the seniors will add depth to the line and backfield. Many juniors who saw playing time in 2011 will return to add even more depth to an offense that had over 2,500 yards rushing and 1,000 yards passing last year. Several key defensive players return – all of whom will add maturity to a defense that has been thin in years past. Look for Ryle to make a deep run in the playoffs, as senior leadership helps to steer the Raider ship.

9. Male – Two years ago, Coach Chris Wolfe’s Bulldogs ran all the way to the state finals. They were expected to be very competitive again last season, but injuries and a lack of size caught up with Male. Despite impressive early wins over highly rated Butler and Eastern, they limped home with a 4-8 record. The Bulldogs off-season program has greatly increased the size and strength of the OL and DL, which should help them significantly. Moreover, the juniors and sophomores saw a lot of action, earlier than planned. That experience should pay big dividends in 2012. Key skill players to watch include QB Tyler Erny, RB Ellis Cain, RB Marque Northington, WR/DB Nathan Case, and WR Kainin Lewis. Male is ready to resume its traditional power position in Kentucky.

10. Henderson County – After struggling through a 1-3 start, the Colonels of Coach Clay Clevenger roared to eight straight victories before losing a tight regional final game to Butler (31-24). In 2011, Henderson County’s strength was at the line, where they returned four starters on each side. The big question marks (which they resolved), were at the skilled positions. But in 2012 the situation is completely reversed. This year, the skill players return, but the lines are depleted. This ground orientated team will be led again by Hunter Comer, who scored 21 TDs, both running and passing. The Colonels unexpectedly lost their leading rusher and defensive LB leader when Rushad Whitlock transferred to Evansville Reitz in August. They do, however, return two other RB/LB starters: Keileen Chappell and Cade Wilke, who should take up the slack. Look for Coach Clevenger to find enough big bodies in the hallways to complement his skilled players and make the Colonels a force again in 2012.