Every year when the time for scheduling a preseason game approaches, Plant High football coach Robert Weiner calls around the state looking for the best opponent for his four-time state champion Panthers.
Last year, it was Godby, the Tallahassee tank of a team that handed Plant a 19-point loss. In 2011, the Panthers took on Miami Columbus, an eventual Class 8A state semifinalist.
But while at a February event for high school coaches at USF with Armwood coach Sean Callahan, Weiner suddenly realized he didn't have to search far and wide this time for the best matchup in Florida.
"I said to Sean, 'We could call anywhere we want, and we're not going to find a better opponent than each other,' " Weiner said.
So the veteran coaches ran it by their athletic directors and made it official: tonight's game that means nothing to overall records but everything to players involved in one of Tampa Bay's greatest rivalries.
The teams, who own a combined six state titles, played every season from 2000-12 before Armwood moved into a nine-team district.
The last time the two teams played, Oct. 26, 2012, the Panthers won 20-19 after blocking a Hawks extra point in overtime.
The two years before that, Plant was shut out (but eventually won both by forfeit for using ineligible players).
In exchange for playing the game at Plant's Dad's Stadium, Callahan initially requested starters be taken out after the second series of the third quarter.
But as game day became closer, both coaches are reconsidering.
"My people don't want to do that," Callahan said, "so we'll play this like a real game."
With no time limits on starters' playing time, the matchup will prominently feature some of Tampa Bay's best players while serving as a coming-out party for others.
Armwood, ranked 25th in the nation by MaxPreps, is led by a defense composed of linebacker Jordan Griffin, who had 150 tackles last season, and end Byron Cowart, one of the nation's top 2015 recruits. They will come for Plant's new starting quarterback, Rex Culpepper, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior who has 13 Division I-A offers despite having never started a varsity game.
Thinking back through the years of meetings between the teams, Weiner is excited about the rich history in the rivalry and the fact another thriller could be right around the corner. Weiner admits he has no idea what will happen.
Griffin, though, has an idea.
"They have the bragging rights right now," he said. "But I think we're going to have the bragging rights this time."
Tonight's other intriguing matchups
Zephyrhills at Land O'Lakes, 7:30: Two teams with playoff aspirations — as usual. But over the past three years, Land O'Lakes is 19-11 and Zephyrhills 20-10 with no playoff berths between them. The Gators return Pasco County's top passing attack led by James Pensyl and will address defensive concerns tonight. The Bulldogs hope to have enough linemen developed to contend with more physical teams.
Berkeley Prep at Gulf, 7:30: Call this the battle of the Buccaneers. Gulf's Buccaneers went 1-9 last season, but that was without two of their biggest playmakers, quarterback Keshaun Peters and Avery Welch, who will line up at multiple positions.Those two will have a chance to work out the kinks tonight. Brad Mayes threw for just more than 1,000 yards as a junior last season for Berkeley Prep's Buccaneers and had a good summer.
Sickles at Tampa Catholic, 7: This game features consensus five-star recruits in Sickles running back Ray Ray McCloud III and Tampa Catholic receiver Nate Craig, the top-rated recruit in the 2016 class. Keep an eye on the Gryphons' pass rush, which must replace a pair of Division I-A signees, against a Crusaders offensive line that lost Corey Martinez to Florida State and has to protect a new, inexperienced quarterback.
Tampa Bay Tech at Blake, 7:30: The Titans haven't been as hyped as years past, but they have a great group of younger players who should begin to emerge tonight. Clemson commit Deon Cain has a talented fleet of receivers to throw to, and coaches will be watching the rebuilt offensive line closely in hopes of establishing a running game. Blake has a new quarterback in Sam Oxendine, a potential 1,000-yard rusher in Corey Bennett and a host of athletic playmakers. But the performance in the trenches will tell us the most.
Clearwater Central Catholic at Countryside, 7:30: The difference in last year's preseason game, a 22-13 CCC win, came at the line of scrimmage. Countryside had four new starters on the offensive line, and the inexperience showed as the Marauders collected seven sacks in the first half. Now the roles are reversed. The Cougars have a more veteran line while CCC is replacing eight starters on defense, including the entire front seven. Expect a high-scoring game that will feature two electrifying quarterbacks, Countryside's Trent Chmelik and CCC's Jeff Smith, a Boston College commit. Smith, though, will be without one of his favorite targets, CJ Cotman, who has a separated shoulder.
Bradenton Manatee at East Lake, 7:30: The Eagles will find out just how badly they miss — or don't miss — players who graduated. There is plenty of talent returning, and Manatee will certainly provide a test. This is the first game for John Booth, the former Bloomingdale coach who takes over for longtime Manatee coach Joe Kinnan. Last year, the Eagles were breaking in new quarterback Jake Hudson and lost to the Hurricanes 38-7. East Lake went on to its greatest season in school history, winning 13 straight games before falling to eventual champion Palm Beach Dwyer in the Class 7A state semifinals. Manatee was upset in the Class 8A semifinals by Fort Pierce Central. The Hurricanes are the ones breaking in a new quarterback this season. Sloan Drummonds transferred from Sebastian River.
Times staff writers Bob Putnam and Rodney Page contributed to this report.