Traditional power and defending district champ Ringling is the coaches' pick to win the District A-4 crown again this season, but the Blue Devils will be challenged by Rush Springs, a newcomer to the league.
Velma-Alma, Healdton and Empire are also expected to be district title contenders.
“It's going to be wide open,” Empire football coach Tony Roberts said. “There are five solid teams that are going to be fighting for four playoff spots.”
VELMA-ALMA WANTS BETTER START
Velma-Alma lost its first five games last season but won its next six before losing in the second round of the playoffs to Minco.
Coach Greg Gothard said the start of last year's season was a wake-up call for a winning program that may have gotten complacent.
“That took me totally by surprise,” Gothard said of the 0-5 start. “I put most of the blame on me. I got lazy. I just kind of had it on autopilot and it came up and bit me. It won't happen again.”
Velma-Alma's players rededicated themselves to the offseason workouts, and with nine starters back on both sides of the ball, Gothard is very optimistic entering the 2012 campaign.
“I think we've had a great summer,” said Gothard, who has had only one losing season in 23 years at Velma-Alma. “I feel like our kids have worked harder than they've worked in many years.”
Tailback Dallen Mercer is back to lead Velma-Alma after missing almost half of last season with a knee injury.
“He is a senior and we expect great things from him,” Gothard said. “He has got a lot of ability.”
Also returning is slot receiver Checotah Lynn, who is the Class A state champ in both the 100- and 300-meter hurdles.
“He is our speed demon,” Gothard said.
Quarterback Ty Richardson started last year as a freshman. “He is not green anymore,” Gothard said.
Velma-Alma has a showdown in the second week of the season against Wynnewood.
“They are probably the best team in our class,” Gothard said. “We will find out where we're at.”
EMPIRE KEEPS GETTING BETTER
Empire has improved every year under coach Tony Roberts, who is entering his fourth season. This could be the year Empire finally hosts a playoff game, something that hasn't happened in two decades.
Empire has seven starters returning on both offense and defense from last year's 6-5 club that lost to Hollis on the road in the opening round of the playoffs.
Senior quarterback Tanner Shorter is a four-year starter who has rushed for more than 2,700 yards and scored 21 touchdowns in the last two seasons for Empire.
“He is going to be our main offensive threat,” Roberts said.
Running back Stephen Price is back from injury after fracturing a bone in his leg in the fifth game last year. Price, also Empire's middle linebacker, played the next week with the injury until Roberts noticed that he wasn't right.
“He started limping more and more (in practice),” Roberts said. “He just never complained about it. I made him go to the doctor. If Stephen doesn't break his leg, I feel like we have a chance to win a couple more ball games and go 8-2.”
Empire also has a home run threat in sophomore Dillon Twigg, who returned two kickoffs and three punts for touchdowns last season while playing on the varsity team as a freshman.
“He is kind of deceptive in the way he runs,” Roberts said. “We feel like he could be a real special player.”
The key for Empire this season will be development of the offensive line. Empire lost four seniors from last year's offensive line and replacing them with sophomores.
“We feel like they are more athletic than what we've had,” Roberts said of his young linemen “But you still feel uncomfortable until you get some games under your belt.”
NEW HEAD MAN IN HEALDTON
Mark Barrett, an assistant coach on Wayne's state championship team last season, takes over the football program at Healdton this season.
He is changing the offense and bringing Wayne's multiple formations to Healdton, which could be good news for senior running back Dylan Pickelsimer, a player Barrett compares to Josh Way, Wayne's all-state running back.
“He reminds me of Way in a lot of ways, which is a good thing,” Barrett said. “He is more of a downhill runner, kind of like Way was.”
Pickelsimer rushed for 1,500 yards last season and will be Healdton's workhorse again this season.
“We are going to put the saddle on the horse and ride him like Wayne did Way,” Barrett said. “We are going to stick our spurs in him and go. He is going to be the star of the show and carry it 30 to 35 times a game.”
Pickelsimer will have a huge offensive line to run behind, led by 6-8, 340-pounder Ryan Miller, who is getting attention from Division I colleges.
Healdton has a tough schedule. In addition to the district foes, Healdton opens with defending state champ Wayne and then meets Wynnewood in Week 3.
“I probably got the preseason No. 1 and 2 (in the state) in the first three weeks,” Barrett said.
District A-4 Coaches' Poll
1. Ringling (8-4)
2. Rush Springs (8-3)
3. Velma-Alma (6-6)
4. Empire (6-5)
5. Healdton (6-5)
6. Walters (0-10)
7. Bray-Doyle (1-9)
8. Wilson (1-8)
Note: Last season's record in parentheses.