High school football in Florida isn't just growing, it's erupting.
It's easy to find the evidence, from the number of teams ranked nationally to the frequent flier miles racked up by the top programs in their quest for continental dominance to this:
At 7 p.m. Friday, ESPN — not ESPN2, or ESPNU or even ESPNPreps, which doesn't actually exist but give it time — will televise live a preseason game between Plant and Bradenton Manatee.
A. Preseason. Game.
I want to hate the idea of a preseason high school football game on national television, because preseason football is rarely worth watching at any level much less televising, but I can't, for three reasons:
1. Little League baseball moved to around-the-clock coverage in August.
2. The top football recruits announce where they are going to college during prime time.
3. Seven-on-seven touch football tournaments are televised live.
So a preseason high school football game on ESPN?
What the heck took so long?
(Oh, and don't you think for a minute that spring jamboree coverage isn't right around the corner; the Plant-Jefferson showdown in May probably had more celebrities at it than this week's game will … but shhhhh.)
Plant and Manatee are among 16 teams that will play this weekend in ESPN's high school kickoff event, and ideally this game would actually count on each team's record.
But the kickoff event — all eight games will be televised on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU — had to be this weekend, before college football invades all 17 ESPN channels, and it naturally had to include teams from a state like Florida, which officially starts its season Sept. 3.
It's a rematch of last year's Class 5A state championship game. It's top recruit James Wilder Jr., who spurned Florida for FSU, against top recruit Mike Blakely, a speedy running back who is leaning toward the Gators and could help ease those wounds. It's four championships (Manatee) vs. three (Plant).
Mostly, it's the No. 2 team in ESPN's rankings against Manatee, which is 19 but higher in other national polls.
"Some people say this is the No. 1 team in the country," said Manatee coach Joe Kinnan, referring to a Rivals.com poll. "You want to win any game against the No. 1 team."
We won't know if this game truly matters until the next ESPN poll comes out. If Manatee wins, will it move up? And more importantly, will Plant drop?
As it stands, ESPN is scheduled to air Abilene (No. 1) vs. Plant (No. 2) on Sept. 16. It may arguably be the Prep Game of the Year on the network. Only three times (2001, 2007, 2009) have the top two teams in the ESPN poll met.
(I suspect a Plant loss makes Friday's game more of an exhibition game than if it wins, for the sake of ESPN's future programming.)
Either way, we will watch, because we've been waiting since December. We have been teased by the jamborees, the summer recruiting news, the results from the camps and combines, the hopes for a new season.
We are so ready, it feels completely real, from Bradenton to Largo to East Lake to Wharton. So you don't hear the word "exhibition" thrown around this week. Kids are on their Facebook pages demanding Friday — this Friday, not next Friday — get here fast.
A lot of coaches will be playing starters for a few series, maybe a half. You'll see reserves, maybe even some junior varsity kids.
But not in Bradenton, where Kinnan has won four state championships, or on South Himes, where Plant's Bob Weiner has won three.
"It's not youth league; it's high school football," Kinnan said. "We've never just wholesale subbed and played backup kids. This is our last chance to get the starters ready to play. It's a dress rehearsal."
Weiner thinks the same way. Always has. In 2004, when he arrived at Plant, he said he called Gaither's Mark Kantor and told him before their preseason game that the Panthers were playing to win.
Nothing has changed.
"My philosophy is, you need to use the moment to capture the kind of intensity we're going to be playing at real soon, starting with Tampa Bay Tech and Hillsborough and then we go to Texas," he said.
It's the way it played it last year, though quarterback Phillip Ely was out with an injury and Wilder Jr. was only the second-most famous Wilder in Tampa Bay. Even then, the teams combined for 82 points in their preseason tilt, a 49-33 Manatee win.
It counted for something then. It counted for a lot more when they played for a state title 16 weeks later.
It will count again Friday.
"You won't be able to tell it's a preseason game," Weiner said.
That's all we're asking.
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.