Coming off 31 straight victories and two consecutive North Carolina High School Athletic Association championships, Butler is favored to win the conference title again - but it might not be easy.
The Bulldogs are under the direction of new coach Brian Hales after Mike Newsome left for A.L. Brown. The transition shouldn't be too tough for Butler since Hales has been in the program for seven years. He was Butler's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for the last three years.
"I'm going to continue what (former) coach (Barry) Shuford started, and I'm going to continue what Newsome did," said Hales. "But the core values are going to be the same. We're not trying to reinvent anything here."
The offense will look almost the same, with junior quarterback Riley Ferguson again at the helm and receivers Uriah Lemay, a junior, and senior Zach Ferguson back this year. The entire offensive line from last year also returns.
Butler lost several key players defensively, including linebacker Kris Frost (Auburn), but junior linebackers Peter Kalambayi and Grant Polofski should be able to fill those holes.
Independence went through a coaching change before last season, when Tom Knotts left to coach at Dutch Fork (S.C.) and assistant coach Bill Geiler took over, but the Patriots didn't take to the change very well. Arguably the best Charlotte football team over the past decade, the Patriots struggled to a 3-8 finish last year, tied for fifth in the conference with Myers Park.
Independence doesn't lack talent and showed flashes of it last year in a 51-30 win against Ardrey Kell. Senior Evan Guest should return at quarterback for the Patriots, but they have lost running backs Nyjee Fleming and Kahlil Smith and all-conference receivers Adisa Batten and Adrian Gamble.
Senior R.J. Baker (also a linebacker) and sophomore Isaiah Robinson had limited carries last year but probably will be more of a factor this year. Junior wide receiver De'quan Barnes (539 yards, five touchdowns) and senior Austin Duke (296 yards, four touchdowns) should fill the receiving role.
Independence must improve defensively this year after giving up more than 30 points a game last year.
Rocky River struggled last year, but that was to be expected from a first-year school without seniors playing in the Southwestern 4A. With a year behind them and seniors on the roster, the Ravens could win a few games and might even pull an upset in the conference.
The Ravens (0-10, 0-7) also have to improve offensively this year after getting shut out four times last year and scoring more than 10 points in a game only once all season. Sophomore quarterback Christian Allen-Brown should benefit from a year of experience leading the Ravens, and senior running back Deron Davis and junior running back Sidney Lawson must help by getting more yards on the ground this year.. Senior all-conference lineman Matt Ledford should help them be more effective.
The Ravens have the advantage of not losing players to graduation and are pulling from the same talent pool as Butler and Independence.