Coach: Monte Thelen, 11th season

Cherokee Trail

Last year: 12-2 overall, 4-1 in 5A Centennial League (lost in 5A state championship game)

Players to watch: Evan White, 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, S, sr.; Aric Johnson, 6-0, 170, QB, sr.; Colt Jones, 6-6, 300, OT, sr.; Cameron Smith, 6-0, 170, RB, jr.; Jason Thompson, 6-0, 160, WR, jr.; Thomas Thortvedt, 6-1, 180, S, sr.; Kaleb Barnum, 5-11, 200, LB, sr.; Cameron Currington, 5-10, 175, RB/LB, sr.; Jacob Martin, 6-3, 215, DL, sr.; Mar’Keith Bailey, 5-10, 175, LB, sr.; Nik Bogulski, 6-1, 185, DE, sr.; Mason Bode, 5-10, 155, DB, sr.

2013 outlook: Coach Monte Thelen’s Cherokee Trail football program has pushed forward every season in the past decade and extended a streak of postseason appearances to eight, nearly reaching the pinnacle before losing a hard-fought 9-0 decision to Valor Christian in the Class 5A state championship game. The big season, plus a large freshman class arriving at the schools, gave Thelen a huge pool of an estimated 150 players to choose from. With potentially the largest returning group of fast, strong, physical athletes in Colorado — plus a coaching staff of veterans that returns largely intact — the Cougars could very well return to Sports Authority Field at Mile High when this season’s title is on the line Nov. 30. Cherokee Trail — which won the Centennial League championship last year — has 12 starters back, eight on the defense and four on the offense. Bruising safety Evan White, who verbally committed to the University of Colorado in the offseason, is the lynchpin of a veteran defense that allowed just 11.6 points per game last season. White led Aurora with seven interceptions a year ago and combines with fellow senior Thomas Thortvedt to give Cougars a pair of experienced safeties who will need to be accounted for by offenses, while a core of linebackers featuring seniors Kaleb Barnum, Cameron Currington and Mar’Keith Bailey is plenty fast and physical as well. Up front, seniors Jacob Martin and Nik Bogulski can get after the quarterback with regularity. Last season, Cherokee Trail had a veteran offensive line and inexperienced skill players, but the roles are reversed this season. Up front, only senior Colton Jones — a stout 6-foot-6, 300-pounder — returns from last season’s physical group. Aric Johnson grew as a quarterback every game last season and finished with 2,000 yards of total offense and 15 touchdowns. He’s again a threat to run and has improved his throwing, with White and junior WR Jason Thompson among a handful of returning pass catchers that he knows well. Working junior RB Cameron Smith is also back, coming off a season in which he piled up nearly 900 yards rushing and had 240 more receiving with a combined nine touchdowns. The Cougars need to replace a talented punter in Josh Weichert and place kicker in Ryan Winke, but should still be strong on special teams.

Quoting the coach: “One of the things we’re talking to our kids about is that the success of this year’s team comes with the work and cohesivness we develop with this group. Accomplishments in the past are great, but it’s not going to help us against anybody this season. We have to go out and earn it and build it, much like we had to build it last year and the year before. I think there is some confidence in the fact that we’re returning a number of guys who played roles on a successful team, which we didn’t have much of a year ago.”

2013 schedule: Home games in all caps (played at Legacy Stadium): Friday, Aug. 30 — at Chatfield, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 7 — FORT COLLINS, 1 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 14 – vs. Gateway at Aurora Public Schools Stadium, 1 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 21 — REGIS JESUIT, 1 p.m.; Thursday, Sept. 26 – SMOKY HILL, 7 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 4 — CHERRY CREEK, 7 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 11 – GRANDVIEW, 7 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 18 — vs. Eaglecrest at Legacy Stadium, 7 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 25 — vs. Overland at Stutler Bowl, 7 p.m.

Courtney Oakes is Sports Editor of the Aurora Sentinel. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or Twitter: @aurorasports. Facebook: Aurora Prep Sentinel

Courtney Oakes is sports Editor and photographer with Sentinel Colorado. A Denver East High School alum. He came to the Sentinel in 2001 and since then has received a number of professional awards from...