By BRETT MARSHALL

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

No. 1 Scott City Beavers (Class 3A, Mid State Activities Association): No question about this pick to kick off the 2009 season. The Beavers finished 10-2 a year ago, lost a heartbreaker 20-17 quarterfinal playoff decision to Garden Plain, and now return for redemption.

"It's not gone," head coach Glenn O'Neil said of the bitter taste that loss to Garden Plain left with his team and staff. "It was a frustrating loss but I think this year's seniors see it as motivating to make it to the next stage. There's not a day that goes by that somebody player or coach that doesn't mention that loss so we plan to use it as a positive motivator."

That would be getting past the quarterfinals, the place where their season stopped each of the past three years.

"We've been on the doorstep for three years running and we want to quit knocking and get the door opened and go as far as possible," O'Neil said. "This group has worked so hard that it is difficult for me to imagine them not having success this year."

That opportunity got a little setback when starting quarterback Dillon Stucky tore his anterior cruciate ligament and will be sidelined for at least three to four weeks as he attempts to rehabilitate it in hopes of being able to play the last half of the season. If he can't go then, he'll undergo surgery and miss the entire season.

"It just really affects our depth at quarterback," O'Neil said of Stucky's injury. "You just always feel bad for the player when it happens, especially when they are seniors."

Junior Ron Baker will take over starting quarterback duties, a position that he has played much of his football career dating back to junior high.

"We have a lot of confidence in Ron to do the job we need," O'Neil said. "On many other teams he would have been starting at quarterback."

No. 2 Hugoton Eagles (Class 4A, Hi-Plains League): Coach Clint Merritt's rebuilding project has been completed and now it's time to see if they can put the finishing touches on his master plan.

Three years ago he was hired, and using mainly freshmen and sophomores for two seasons, the Eagles suffered through a 3-15 record in his first two years. Last year, though, they went 6-3 and went into a final quarter with a chance to beat Holcomb and also had opportunities to take a giant lead against Ulysses in the opening period but couldn't capitalize on turnovers.

"This is what we've been building toward for the past three years and now we're here," Merritt said. "We've got a great group of seniors who know how to lead and I think that's one of their greatest strengths as a group."

No. 3 Garden City Buffaloes (Class 6A, Western Athletic Conference): Will coach Mike Smith's decision to revamp his offensive scheme to the popular spread formation pay dividends? An early season matchup with always-tough Ulysses kicks off the Buffs' season. From there, it just gets more difficult with the Western Athletic Conference opponents on the schedule. Paced by junior quarterback Cody Bernbeck and a solid group of linemen, the switch to a more open offense will certainly create opportunities for players to showcase their individual skills within the framework of the team.

No. 4 Sublette Larks (Class 2A, Hi-Plains League): If the Larks remain healthy, and pull together a talented group of players, this season could well be one of their best in recent years. Coach Steve Simpson has speedster Mason Hibbard in the backfield but the Larks have no fewer than 16 returning starters, eight on each side of the ball. How well that season may turn out will be determined in the opening two weeks when they play at 3A Southwestern Heights and have a home game with 3A Holcomb.

No. 5 Ulysses Tigers (Class 4A, Mid State Activities Association): Coach Jason Kenny rarely has suffered through even a mediocre season, much like the 5-5 record the Tigers posted in 2008. Brighter days are likely for the Tigers and their offense will be keyed by senior quarterback Bryce Moral. The Tigers, though, have a brutal schedule with the opener at Garden City being the biggest of the early season slate.