Class 4A South Metro football preview

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Much like the Class 5A Big 6 Conference, which houses Mullen, every team in the 4A South Metro football conference has a beast to slay — two-time defending state champion Valor Christian.

Valor nabbed its second consecutive state title and its first in 4A last season. The Eagles earned their first in 3A in the 2009 season before moving up the following year.

Being a private school and having fewer limits on reloading the roster, Valor Christian football’s biggest challenge should be to find replacements for Brock Berglund, George Talanoa and others. However, there’s been a lot of anticipation toward the Eagles’ 4A follow-up and second title defense. To start the season, Valor is again widely believed to be the team to beat.

Among eight returning starters on defense and seven on offense, Valor has Arizona State-bound Michael Mann on the D-line along with linebackers A.J. Isenburg, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, and Boise State-bound Andrew Pint. Cameron Gray, who will provide plenty on both sides of the ball is also back, and backs Braxton Peats, sophomore Christian McCaffrey and receivers Duke-committed Max McCaffrey and tight-end Preston Knight also return.

The big question circling the Valor camp is who will step in at quarterback with Berglund having graduated? The answer is either Wes Taber, Michael Kortz or Cody Thibault. The three are expected to get equal time early in the season.

Next question, who is going to give the South Metro conference champs a challenge? Ponderosa gave them the best race last season with an 8-4 finish and the league’s second-place position. The Mustangs are back with that same high energy and enthusiasm.

“There are many great teams in our league and the competition is very high,” Ponderosa coach Randy Huff said. “You can expect us to win the close games (with) the high level of competition and intensity.”

Pondo has seven returning starters, including Chris Fox, who was named to MaxPreps.com’s sophomore All-American team. He also sits in a core leadership position for the team, along with Taylor Johnson, Caleb Courkamp, D.J. Pantone, Drew Ongna, Jordan Hicks, Josh Medina, who is back from injury after missing his junior year, and Brandon Black.

“These players will have the most leadership on their shoulders due to their positions on the team and the impact they make on the field,” Huff said. “I believe the front runners of the league will be Valor, Castle View and Ponderosa. Littleton and Legend are still in their rebuilding process ... Our team will play with passion and will be extremely physical.”

Castle View was third in the league last season. This season, like many in this league, will be the last year of 4A play for the Sabercats. The Cats welcome Tom Ashworth to the coaching staff, possibly one of the most successful NFL players to ever come from Colorado, who is a Cherry Creek and CU graduate, and a New England Patriots O-lineman with three Super Bowl rings as a starter.

That being said, View comes back to improve on a 3-2 league record, 6-5 overall, with 30 seniors. The team will start 18 to 19 seniors each week and benefits from 12 returning starters.

“This group knows how to win and has the talent and determination to take us to places we have never been,” Cats coach Ryan Hollingshead said. “This is Castle View’s fourth senior class. We still have a lot of firsts to mark off this year ... We have a chance to win our first league title and first playoff game.”

Safety Jamie Lambert, lineman Nate Shepherd, quarterback Austin Smith and linebacker Connor McKenna make up the core of the team’s leadership. Hollingshead sees Valor lining up below them when the dust of the league schedule settles.

“(We have) rock-solid defense, big physical O-line and balanced offense, great kickers and special teams,” Hollingshead said.

Rock Canyon may struggle at the line and is working with a different set of receivers this year, which may put the Jaguars on a learning curve in 2011. Six Jags do return to their starting positions, including running back Eric Williams. Canyon does have a couple returning linemen in Chance Champine at center, Jimmy Owsley and Hunter Tyson. Brady McNeily is back down field. Kicker Blake Greiner also returns. Despite the amount of players expected to grow up from the Jags’ schedule this year, coach Tom Lynch isn’t worried about finding leaders.

“Every player is expected to lead in his own way,” Lynch said.

Compared in size alone to opponents in the league, Rock Canyon may have the smallest team, which will make beating Valor tough. However, the Jags are never known to walk away from a challenge.

“(We have a) won’t-back-down attitude,” Lynch said. “RCHS kids will just keep coming.”

Legend should still be learning this season, having its second season of 4A action ahead of it. Although the Titans took many bruises last year, they did come up with one league win to keep them out of the basement with a 1-4 record, 3-7 overall.

However, Legend does come with its first class of senior players and a new energy with a change of head coach. Robert Doyle takes over the helm of the Titans, succeeding Michael Wade.

Senior Michael Finkelstein should be back at quarterback, and Nick Evdos also should be back to rack up the rushing yards for his junior year. Junior Connor Orgill should also return as Finkelstein’s prime target down field.

Seniors Brad Dalby, Brendan Vinyard and Chris Salazar, who led the team in interceptions last year, should also be back.

Littleton simply doesn’t have the same numbers as most of its South Metro League opponents. The Lions were in the league’s basement with an 0-5 record last year, 2-8 overall. Even worse, Littleton graduated top players Denzel Washington, Jonathon Edmunds and Jeremy Todd.

However, senior Cody Billings may be back for the ground game, and Colton Barrett may be the star down field on both sides on the ball.