The high school football season opens Friday, finally, with the North Suncoast’s 19 teams playing in 12 games across the state. As the clock ticks toward kickoff, we’ve counted down some of the biggest stories, from five intriguing debuts to one historical streak that could come to an end.
(from easiest to hardest)
1. Bishop McLaughlin: The Hurricanes are back in a Florida High School Athletic Association’s district for the first time since 2007, and the school has been buzzing about it since last fall. Their Class 3A, District 4 opener and a brutal schedule comes later. This week, enthusiasm is high and could lead to a big crowd — and a big win after blowing out Santa Fe Catholic 33-12 last fall.
2. Wiregrass Ranch: First-year coach Mike Lawrence already has some pseudo wins on his resume, after Wiregrass knocked off Sunlake and Wesley Chapel in the jamboree and beat Mitchell in the kickoff classic. A matchup against rebuilding Gulf provides the perfect opportunity for Shane Bucenell and the Bulls to end their North Suncoast-worst 22-game losing streak.
3. Springstead: The Eagles should be in for a strong season under new coach Mike Garofano and will likely contend for back-to-back district titles. But this opener is tough. Citrus boasts Division I prospects Steven Knowles and James Pouncey and trounced Nature Coast by 40 points last week.
4. Wesley Chapel: The Wildcats put on a strong preseason showing for rookie coach Tico Hernandez by knocking off Fivay. East Bay transfer Eric Bennett should be in for a big fall, but Wesley Chapel will have its hands full against an athletic, fast Zephyrhills team that could be one of the county’s best.
5. Gulf: The Bucs have lost 12 games in a row but have improved their morale and discipline in coach Jason Messamore’s first few months on the job. Translating that confidence into a win over a deeper Wiregrass Ranch program will be a challenge. “We’ve had a lot of progress through the spring and preseason game,” quarterback Avery Welch said. “But this game counts.”
Four players who need big games
Zephyrhills QB Ty Tanner: The Wesley Chapel transfer has impressed coaches all fall and had a solid preseason game, throwing for a touchdown and two-point conversion and rushing for 49 yards. But the Bulldogs also bobbled six snaps — mistakes they will have to eliminate in Week 1.
Hernando ATH Ra’shaad Hart: Jacksonville Bolles is a state powerhouse, so this is a major challenge for the Leopards. If they hope to win, Hart — perhaps Hernando’s top all-around athlete — needs to carry them on both sides of the ball.
Ridgewood QB Nick Michaels: The Rams have scored only one touchdown in exhibition games against Zephyrhills and Pasco. Michaels, a first-year starter, will have to snap the offense out of its funk to upset Fivay.
Fivay RB Davion Sutton: The Falcons will go as far as the standout rusher and part-time defender will take them. He rushed for 55 yards in the first half and scored Fivay’s only touchdown last week against Wesley Chapel.
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Two tough road trips
Nature Coast (at Crystal River): The Sharks lost by a touchdown in last year’s home matchup and are trying to regroup against a good program after a 47-7 loss at Citrus. Even worse: They’ll try to do so without Division I recruit Rohan Blackwood, who was suspended after last week’s ejection.
Weeki Wachee (at Interlachen): The Hornets are making the 100-mile journey past Ocala for the second year in a row. Last season’s voyage ended well — three passing touchdowns from Marcus Allen to Jon King and the first district win in program history — and this one could have a similar result.
One streak that might end
River Ridge hasn’t beaten Land O’Lakes on the field since earning a 30-21 victory in 1996 — just after third-year coach Ryan Benjamin finished his career with the Royal Knights.
The gap has closed in the one-sided rivalry. The last two matchups have been one-point Gators victories, and Land O’Lakes needed 22 unanswered points to escape the 2011 matchup with a one-point win.
“It’s always interesting with Land O’Lakes,” Benjamin said.
After the Gators struggled in the preseason against Zephyrhills, this matchup could end almost two decades of futility.
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.
Photo: Hernando's Ra'Shaad Hart