Each of the last two seasons, Mayfield's season has ended at Kroger Field in Lexington -- one of 12 Kentucky high school teams left playing football in December.

Both times, it's been as a Class 2A state runner-up.

Two seasons ago, it was Danville -- with that season's Mr. Football, DeMauriae VanCleave leading the charge for his Admirals -- that sent the Cardinals back to western Kentucky with a trophy, just not the one they wanted to go home with.

Last year, Christian Academy of Louisville ended Mayfield's run at a state title, though not without a late rally from Cardinals signal-caller Jayden Stinson leading a frantic comeback with a torn right labrum.

Much of the Cardinals' success in the last two years has come from players like Kyle Hurt, a linebacker/running back; Kent Trey Matthews, a running back/defensive back; Brady Smith, a defensive lineman/tight end; Connor Guthrie, a wide receiver/quarterback/defensive back; and Barrett Henley, an offensive lineman.

All five have graduated. All but Hurt graduated this past spring.

So, what happens next?

Mayfield turns to its receivers, a position for which the Cardinals have not normally been known for in terms of depth and ability.

Seniors Kade Neely, Diaz Perry and Alonzo Daniel have the height, speed and hands necessary to be threats downfield for Stinson, who's also a senior.

The trio, which combined for 2,200 receiving yards and 31 touchdowns, are all also starters on defense.

"If we feel like we're going to be the best team in the state, we need to have the best offense in the state and the best defense in the state," Daniel said. "That's what makes all of us better.

"Now, we're playing with one quarterback. Jayden can get it there, no matter what. We're stronger receivers, now. Four out of the five receivers who are there, they're all over 6-feet (tall), so Jayden has big targets to throw to, now. We're all fast. We can all catch really well. The receiving corps is really strong. Mayfield hasn't had that in a while. It used to always be just a running game."

There's a good chance Mayfield is back in its customary place at the state championship game this year. CAL has moved up to Class 3A, and Danville has lost some of the luster that has made it a tough contender.

And, Mayfield coach Joe Morris knows it.

But, he also knows his team has a long way to go before it gets there.

"We want the attitude that we're hungry for it, whether we win it or not," Morris said. "The last two years, we've been beaten in the finals, and I know our guys are eager to get back. Our coaches and team feel like we have a chance to get back and make another run at a state championship.

"We know we're not where we need to be. But, probably right now, not many teams are. We feel like we've got the pieces, but it all depends on a couple of guys to come through. It's hard to play with 10 solid guys. We need 11 solid guys to go out there and win a state championship doing all the right things the right way. They look pretty good on the practice field, but what's it going to look like when we turn the lights on? How are we going to play and react? We're anxious to see. We're anxious to get started."

Murray ready to move forward in 2A

Murray made a run of its own in the Class 2A playoffs last season, before losing to Mayfield in the regional championship game.

This year, the Tigers are ready to repeat that success -- hopefully having some more fun in the process.

"We definitely have the talent to go farther than we did last year," linebacker/tight end Tommy Waldrop said. "That just motivates me even more to work harder and just to be more of a leader, because I know we can go the extra step to reach our goal."

Certainly, the threat posed by quarterback Hunter Utley, who threw for 2,454 yards and 26 touchdowns last year, is not a surprise for Murray or its opponents.

But, running backs Chase Merriss and Mark Thompson have moved on after graduating this past spring. The pair combined for 1,639 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground. Junior running back Charvelle McCalister is back, looking to improve on his 429 yards and six touchdowns from a season ago.

Utley's top three receivers are all seniors this year. Jaiden Jackson (672 yards, nine touchdowns), Jorden Duffy (648 yards, seven touchdowns) and Kayden Rogers (233 yards, five touchdowns) have the potential to increase their production -- making the Tigers' offense formidable, behind an offensive line anchored by junior Sebastian Lawrence.

"Those guys are all going to play a big role for us," Murray coach Keith Hodge said. "Overall, I like us as a unit. I think experience as a whole will go a long way. Instead of having a few individual pieces, we have experience in different spots. That adds up. I think that's going to be a big difference for us."

The contributions last season on defense from Lawrence (82 tackles, four sacks), Jackson (79 tackles, four sacks), Waldrop (59 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries) and Damon Boyd (67 tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries) can't be understated, either.

"We'll have some two-way kids, but we're building depth," Hodge said. "That's one of the key things also, going into the season, is how we build depth."

Caldwell rebuilds during 2A transition

Caldwell County is playing in Class 2A, after moving down a class at the end of last school year.

The transition comes as the Tigers are in a rebuild, of sorts, after losing quarterback Joby Jaggers (Murray State), Trel Riley (a one-time Tennessee commit), Oliver Parker (Western Kentucky) and Jameer Riley to graduation.

Russ Beshear, a starting linebacker, will be playing on both sides of the ball -- serving as the Tigers' quarterback this season.

"He's a good football player," Caldwell coach David Barnes said. "Right now, he's ahead of everybody else at the quarterback position."

Beshear is one of several Tigers who are vying for leadership roles with the team, which graduated 22 players at the end of last season and has just nine members of the Class of 2020.

"That's the biggest thing," Barnes said. "Of those 22, a lot of those guys were skill guys. In high school football, you can't recruit them, so you try to get guys out to play as best you can and work with what you've got, and try to get them better each and every day. We're going to be young, but even though you're young, you've got to make plays."

Running back DeEric Hollowell will be back this year, one of a few holdovers from last year's group that ran for 1,311 yards and 18 touchdowns last year.

Bombers forge on without star QB

Erick Marinelli made a lot of things happen for the offense in four seasons at Ballard Memorial. But, now he's graduated, which has ushered in an offensive change for Bombers coach Mark Brooks, who is starting his third season at the controls. "We've improved on our run game, as far as we can see," Brooks said. "We won't throw the ball nearly as much. If we throw the ball 5 to 10 times this year, that's going to be almost a miracle for us. Erick did some great, great things for us.

"He had four receivers last year that, with them together, it made a great group of receivers and skill kids. What it does is it doesn't necessarily make anyone better, but it forces them to make themselves better. Everybody was kind of depending on Erick to pull us out of messes ... we put ourselves into. Now, it makes our kids play a lot cleaner of a game. We can't make the kind of mistakes or have the big penalties we had. We have to play good, solid football."

But, losing a prolific combination like that between Marinelli and receiver Drew Cox -- who in three years came together to make 2,688 yards and 38 touchdowns -- is going to take some adjusting to. "I think they've adjusted pretty well," Brooks said, adding that seniors Dequin Donlow and twin brothers Trenton and Trevor Howard are all coming back with high expectations. "The group of kids I have this year, I would say they're not as athletic as kids we've had in the past. They're coming together much better as a team. They've taken the understanding that it's not all about stats. It's about playing well as a team and putting wins together."

For Trenton Howard, the idea that the Bombers need all hands on deck as a smaller Class 2A school isn't a foreign concept, but it holds more meaning this year, perhaps more than most.

"We had a big adjustment, since we don't have as many kids this year," said Howard, who was one of 22 players on Ballard's varsity roster as of early August. "A lot of the younger guys are looking to be playing and backing up (the older ones). We're all working hard at practice. Everybody's trying to be as physical as they can be."

Quick hit from Class 2A

In the last two seasons, Danville -- which won the 2A title in 2017 -- has graduated 2017 Mr. Football DeMauriae VanCleave and its star quarterback, Zach Thornton, this past spring. The Admirals are rebuilding, but should still be a tough out in the postseason.

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