AP NEWS

Prep football: Plenty of storylines to watch

August 1, 2016 GMT

Today, the countdown clock officially begins and it’ll be 24 days until kickoff.

Here are 10 (of what are sure to be many) storylines for the upcoming prep football season:

WELCOME: Class 6A has a fresh coat of paint, which is actually a repeating theme this year, both from a classification and district alignment standpoint.

Dropped to 5A are Deming and Alamogordo; taking their places are Piedra Vista and Centennial.

The Hawks and coach Aaron Ocampo have been basically a 6A-level program operating in 5A, and everyone is keenly interested to see how they’ll match up with the residing big boys on the block in Dona Ana County, Mayfield and Las Cruces.

NEW FACES: There are new coaches at several prominent programs, including Mark Lopez at Las Cruces and Rex Henderson at Artesia, plus Chris White at Goddard.

In the metro area, there have been several changes: Greg Henington, continuing the family coaching bloodline at Belen after leaving Mayfield where he was an assistant; Judge Chavez coming out of hibernation to return to his alma mater, Valley;? Josh Baca, taking over from Gus Brock at Menaul; and most recently, Tim Johnson, who will serve on an interim basis this season with Albuquerque High.

OH MY, O’MAURY: Before he joins Zach Gentry at Michigan, Los Lunas running back O’maury Samuels will look to go out with a blaze.

Samuels shot up recruiting boards so quickly and so dramatically during the offseason that he became a national name practically overnight. He should be a human highlight reel for the Tigers.

BUT DON’T FORGET ?: Samuels is not the only prominent ball carrier in the larger divisions this year.

In fact, this should be an excellent season for running backs, with Samuels joining Mayfield’s Isaac Vance, Rio Rancho’s Josh Foley, Cleveland’s Shawn Nieto, Clovis’ Micah Gray and Manzano’s Jordan Byrd.

Foley and Byrd are coming off lower-body injuries, but judging from how they ran at May’s state track meet, both look primed for huge campaigns. Vance in particular is a tremendous back, vastly underrated.

WHO WILL IT BE? The last two big-school state champions, Rio Rancho and Cleveland, both finished 13-0. It is the first time the state has had consecutive undefeated champions from the metro area since La Cueva went back-to-back in 2003-2004.

The Rams probably have slightly more buzz than the Storm as this season gets underway. And Mayfield looks (early) to be the strongest challenger from the southern half of the state. Of course, it’s only the first day of August.

DISTRICT SHUFFLES, 6A: This may take a minute.

District 1-6A has seen Piedra Vista replace Santa Fe. The Demons have moved into District 2 with Clovis, joining Manzano, La Cueva, Sandia and Eldorado.

Highland was in District 2, but the Hornets have been shifted to District 4.

The old District 4, by the way, no longer exists. Clovis was dispersed to District 2, Alamogordo dropped down a division, and Hobbs and Carlsbad were transferred to District 3, creating a massive seven-team league that also includes four Las Cruces members, plus Gadsden.

The new District 4 is basically the old District 5, with Valley, AHS, Atrisco Heritage, West Mesa and Rio Grande, plus the Hive.

DISTRICT SHUFFLES, 5A/4A: There were major shifts here, too.

Los Lunas, Belen and Valencia left District 3 (which featured major travel requirements) and joined St. Pius and Grants in a newly configured District 5.

Albuquerque Academy, after going independent in 2015, is back in a league ? District 2 with Del Norte, Los Alamos, Espanola Valley and Capital. Academy replaces Bernalillo in that district.

Bernalillo and Moriarty have been dropped from 5A to 4A.

The Spartans are in a seven-team football district with schools from Santa Fe, Pojoaque, Taos and Las Vegas. The NMAA is calling this District 2/5-4A. (The basketball alignment is much different; we’ll deal with that in the coming months.)

The Pintos are joined with Hope Christian, Portales, Ruidoso and New Mexico Military Institute.

SO CLOSE: It has been 27 years (Highland, 1989) since an APS program other than La Cueva has lifted a blue trophy. Several have been super close, including Eldorado last December.

Now that we’ve had our first all-metro football final, the only piece of history lacking is an all-Albuquerque final. Nobody, including me, is expecting that anytime soon.

WHO BENEFITS? Three of last year’s Final Four in 5A aren’t even in this class anymore, as Moriarty went down and Centennial and Piedra Vista went up. The fourth is defending champ Artesia.

You’d have to think more than a few 5A programs ? St. Pius, Alamogordo, Farmington and Los Lunas among them ? believe they’ll have more than just a whiff of a chance to reach that first weekend in December.

WILD CARDS: Over the next 3? weeks ? starting today, in fact ? the Journal will offer its usual comprehensive preseason lead-up to opening night, with previews on each of the 24 metro-area playing schools. This year, I’ve decided that we will rank only the top five from the metro area, down from 10 which was five too many in a metro area this size.

Also ahead, we’ll have the week-by-week schedule for the metro-area schools, plus some other assorted goodies. If you missed it, our players-to-watch package ran Sunday.

We hope you’ll enjoy.