Sunflower League boasts 6A state football title contenders, D-I talent
The punishing nature of the Sunflower League, which produced 2012 6A state champion Shawnee Mission West, makes turning around a program all the more arduous a task.
First-year SM North coach Don Simmons is tasked with rebuilding a football program that hasn’t won more than three games since 2004. Two road games kick off a difficult league slate for the Indians: at Free State on Sept. 6 and at Leavenworth the following week.
Free State, alongside SM West, has been picked by several writers to be on the short list for 6A title contention one year after advancing to the state semifinals. On its preseason top-five list for 6A, Kpreps.com has SM West second and Free State fourth. Also among those high on Free State is Eli Underwood, who publishes sunflowerleaguefootball.com.
“Shawnee Mission West and Free State are the two heavyweights this year,” Underwood said, “provided there are no crazy injuries. Expect those two to top the league standings the majority of the season.”
Underwood also recently published a list of preseason league MVP ratings, atop which is Leavenworth running back Jason Randall. Randall has tallied 2,275 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in his first three years with the Pioneers and figures to be an enormous task for opposing defenses to stop in his senior season. Free State went 10-2 in 2012 and returns all-league safety and Kansas University commit Joe Dineen, who has also been tapped to replace the graduated Kyle McFarland at quarterback. The Firebirds, who will travel to SM Northwest one week after opening at home against the Indians, also welcome back three linebackers in Keith Loneker, Stan Skwarlo and Blake Winslow.
Another KU commit figures to bolster SM West’s returning crop of players: defensive back/wide receiver Andre Maloney. Maloney earned first team all-league honors after recording 42 tackles and four interceptions and added 13 touchdowns on offense. SM West has long been one of the league’s most consistent forces as coach Tim Callaghan approaches his 11th year as coach with an 80-28 record.
After Free State and SM West, however, Underwood called spots 3-11 almost interchangeable this year.
Right now, he pencils Olathe North at third and SM Northwest at 11th, noting that either team could well finish as high as in the top or bottom three of a league rich in parity this season.
“The only team with serious questions is Shawnee Mission North with the coaching change and only a few players returning that did much last year,” Underwood said.
Underwood said a good rule of thumb in the Sunflower League is that the first season under a new coach is “a crap shoot.”
“Years two to three is when you typically see a change with a new head coach settling in,” he said.
After all, Underwood added, Callaghan went 2-7 his first season before going 9-3 the next year. Aside from Hibbs at SM Northwest, another candidate for a coach on the upswing is Ryan Lonergan at SM South.
“He went 2-7 his first year, then 4-5 last year and I think they’ll be even better than that this season,” Underwood said.
Division I talent plentiful
On Oct. 11, SM Northwest will travel to Olathe South in a game that will include what Underwood calls a “once in a lifetime” type of Sunflower League lineman: Braden Smith. At 6-foot-7, 290-pounds, Smith is the state’s top recruit and among the top offensive line prospects in the country.
“Go out there and watch him because he’ll probably be in the NFL in four or five years,” Underwood said. “He’s a fun guy to watch.”
Olathe North, which won three of four to close the year in coach Gene Weir’s return, welcomes back Lee’s Summit transfer Jimmy Swain (6-3, 225 pounds), who at linebacker narrowed a list of 16 scholarship offers to Michigan, Michigan State, Oregon, Stanford and TCU.
In all, Underwood said, there is more Division I talent in the league than at any point since 2006.
Save the date(s)
Week four’s SM West-Free State showdown is a lock for the most intriguing game of the year and perhaps the game with the most at stake. It isn’t out of the question that it could also be a meeting between two 3-0 teams at the time. Underwood added that week 8’s meeting between SM North and SM Northwest should be one of the better Hula Bowls in recent years. The district schedule for SM North and SM Northwest isn’t particularly kind. The two teams will play SM East and SM West in addition to continuing their rivalry.
“It’s just going to be a dogfight,” SM Northwest coach Linn Hibbs said.
Underwood expects SM West to take the district’s first playoff bid, leaving SM North, SM Northwest and SM East to duke it out for the final spot in their district.