TAMPA — From one campus to another, the distance between Sickles and Alonso high schools is 5.4 miles.
But the separation between the football programs has become more like a chasm.
The Sickles Gryphons, stocked with a talented roster, are dreaming of big things. The Alonso Ravens, with just four winning records in 16 previous seasons, are building a foundation with a new head coach.
Friday night at 7:30, Sickles seeks its seventh consecutive on-field victory against Alonso as the neighborhood rivalry kicks off the regular season at the Gryphons' Lair.
"It's a game full of emotions," Sickles second-year coach Patrick Murphy said. "It's not an easy way to open the season, but everybody is into it. The kids are fired up. The community is behind it. So it's good all around. Now we just have to perform to our capabilities."
Murphy finished 5-4 on the field in his debut season, but the Gryphons will go down as a 1-8 team because they used an ineligible player. Sickles opened last season with a 26-0 win at Alonso, but it became a forfeit victory for the Ravens, who lost every other game.
New coach Reggie Crume, who came to Alonso after three seasons at Palm Harbor University, said that technical win can't erase the domination Sickles has shown in the recent series.
"A rivalry is when one team wins some of the time and the other team wins some of the time," Crume said. "I'm not even sure the last time Alonso beat Sickles (it was 2010, a 17-14 victory), but we're trying to make this into a rivalry.
"It's no different than when I was with Palm Harbor, trying to deal with the supposed East Lake rivalry. Palm Harbor had never won or rarely won, but we got it done in the second year. We need to beat Sickles to make it a true rivalry. We have great respect for their tradition and we're looking forward to the challenge."
Sickles had a challenge of its own during the spring when quarterback Jordan McCloud, younger brother of Clemson University's Ray-Ray McCloud, transferred to Plant. The Gryphons moved their best athlete, defensive back/wide receiver Jontrey Hunter, to quarterback and tried to cobble together some offensive rhythm.
But over the summer, everything changed.
Senior Jake O'Donnell, a 6-foot-4, 170-pound slinger and pocket presence, transferred in from Jesuit. Meanwhile, Sickles also acquired promising sophomore Joe Sandorf, a transfer from Blake, who added mobility.
"It's a great thing for me and the entire team," said Hunter, a USF commitment who will play both ways and could see spot duty as Wildcat quarterback. "Jake and Joe are both great at delivering the ball and the whole idea is to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers. I think we're going to have a special season."
O'Donnell said he was struck by the amount of Sickles talent — particularly Hunter and defensive back/receiver Timarcus Simpson, an Eastern Michigan commitment — and predicted a big year for the Gryphons.
"I think the Sickles football you saw in the spring is not the Sickles football you're going to see this fall," O'Donnell said. "I'm very optimistic and excited about how we're going to do."
In last Friday's preseason kickoff classic, Sickles defeated King 28-0. Alonso, meanwhile was steamrolled 56-27 at Countryside, surrendering 42 points in the first half. The Ravens' defensive issues were obvious, but they moved the ball effectively with senior quarterback Gavin DenBoer, a transfer from Gaither.
Crume said he has some building blocks with the passing combination of DenBoer to Kyle Kurina, plus the heady play of linebacker/running back Jael Feliz.
"The kids are buying into what we're selling," Crume said. "We've got a very determined group that is hungry for success. They have a never-say-die, never-give-up mentality and that's something hard to coach.
"We've been trying to instill a family atmosphere and the knowledge that no one is bigger than the team. Our guys realize that and they're pulling in the same direction. I think we are building some belief. Obviously, we want to win some games."
But as Alonso players have discovered, beating Sickles has become an elusive goal.
"All we are thinking about is the next game in front of us," O'Donnell said. "No matter who it is, it's important to get off to a good start. Our focus is getting to 1-0."