The Blue Dragons were picked second behind defending NJCAA national champion Butler in the 2009 Jayhawk Conference Preseason Coaches Poll. Butler will be looking for its ninth consecutive conference championship this season.
The rest of the poll was 3. Fort Scott, 4. Garden City, 5. Coffeyville, 6. Independence, 7. Dodge City; 8. Highland.
The last time Hutchinson was picked as high as second in the preseason poll came in 1996 when the Dragons were picked to finish second.
"(Being picked second) is a credit to all the hard work that's been done to this point," said HCC head coach Rion Rhoades, who begins his third season with the Blue Dragons in 2009. "A lot of this is based on what's happened in the past. So you have to take this with a grain of salt.
"What matters for this year is how you do in week 1, and then in week 2 and so on. We are excited that we have gotten better, so we aren't going to put too much stock on where we are ranked."
The Blue Dragons made a five-win improvement in 2008, going 7-4. HCC made a late-season run that saw the Dragons win 4 of 5, going to Fort Scott in the
Region VI Semifinals and winning 30-17 and carrying a fourth-quarter lead against Butler in the regional championship game at Cessna Stadium before falling 29-14.
The Blue Dragons have six starters and 11 lettermen on offense returning.
First-team All-American Gage McKinnis, who was one of the top kick returners in the nation last season. Now fully healthy, he will be utilized on offense more this season, according to Rhoades.
Also back is back is running back Chris Clay, who ran for 629 yards and 10 touchdowns in backing up 2008 Jayhawk Offensive Player of the Year LaDarrian Page.
The Blue Dragons return three starting offensive linemen in guard Mike Powell, center Chase Hartman and tackle Calin Archer. Powell and Hartman earned postseason league honors.
The quarterback position will have a freshmen starting this season.
Defensively, HCC returns five starters and 11 lettermen from a defense that was second in the Jayhawk in total defense.
Defensive end Adam Davis will lead a deep and talented defensive line. Davis had 14.5 quarterback sacks last season, the sixth most in HCC single-season history. The Dragons will still have to replace NJCAA National Defensive Player of the Year Eugene Kinlaw.
HCC lost all three starting linebackers, but has three starters returning in the secondary led by safety Matthew Pearson, who had four interceptions last season. Starting cornerbacks That Williams and Kendall Davis also return.
"The first year at Hutch, I got here late enough where we didn't get a full swing at recruiting," Rhoades said. "This is really the first class of sophomores that we went out and recruited from May to February that we are playing with. They are our guys. They've been through the battles. They know the work ethic that is needed to make our team stronger."
For the second-straight season, the Blue Dragons had the most Shrine Bowl participants of any of the Jayhawk Conference teams. HCC will have 11 players (9 West, 2 East) in tonight's Shrine Bowl at Wichita State's Cessna Stadium.
"That's an exciting thing for us," Rhoades said. "All 11 of those guys will have a chance to be contributors to our program. We had 10 last year and 11 this year, and then we had a couple of guys who transferred in that played in the Shrine Bowl last year. We have 23 or 34 of the best players in the state. Our staff has worked hard in recruiting.
Practice for the Blue Dragons opens Aug. 8. The first game for HCC will be on Saturday, Aug. 29 at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in Miami, Okla. HCC opens the home season on Saturday, Sept. 12 against Highland at Gowans Stadium. Follow junior college football and the KJCCC on JCFootball.com throughout the season.
2009 Jayhawk Conference Predicted Order of Finish
3. Fort Scott
4. Garden City
7. Dodge City