The high school football season opens tonight, 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.
(easiest to hardest)
1. Bishop McLaughlin: The Hurricanes are back in a Florida High School Athletic Association 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.
Pasco at Sunlake
Breakdown: Pasco County's top programs the past few seasons meet again, at last. Sunlake is rebuilding after losing more than two dozen seniors but flexed a very strong defense last week against Steinbrenner. Pasco shows no signs of slowing; Nate Craig and Malik Johns form the top 1-2 punch in the North Suncoast.
Pasco wins if: Its linemen play well. The Pirates' lines are big but still coming together. They'll need to open holes on offense to let the county's top skill players excel.
Sunlake wins if: The defense forces turnovers. Jacob Guzman and the Seahawks were opportunistic last week and will need to match that to slow Pasco's powerful offense.
Matt Baker: Sunlake might have given Pasco a scare last year, but the Seahawks lost too much and have too many unanswered questions to compete with Craig and the Pirates. Pasco, 35-7.
derek j. LaRiviere: It has been three years since these teams squared off, when the Pirates won 49-10. Don't expect much difference with the Seahawks' offense trying to gain footing early in the season. Pasco, 42-0.
Mitchell at Anclote
Breakdown: Two of Pasco County's top rushing attacks meet in a matchup of strong playoff contenders. Anclote's Willie Barrett, a Division I prospect, bruised to 1,400 yards last fall, while Mitchell's rotating backfield rushed for more than 2,300 yards.
Mitchell wins if: It contains Barrett. That's what Tarpon Springs did (12 carries, 10 yards) in the spring game, and the Sharks mustered only a field goal in a 28-3 loss.
Anclote wins if: Its offense shows diversity. Mitchell's defense is strong enough to stop the run, unless the Sharks open up the field with Ty and Shy Carter at receiver, leaving the middle open for Barrett.
Baker: Both programs are on the rise, but Anclote has too many questions early. The Sharks will jell in the coming weeks — just not before a bump or two early. Mitchell, 21-20.
LaRiviere: This one could come down to Barrett vs. Christian Trinidad. When these teams met in the season opener last year, the Mustangs won 20-10 behind Trinidad's 137 yards and one touchdown. Barrett ran for 85 yards and a score for the Sharks. Mitchell, 21-17.
Hudson at Central
Breakdown: These rebuilding programs have taken steps back in exhibition games — Hudson struggled against Mitchell and Springstead, while Central faltered against Tavares and Williston. Both teams need momentum and confidence in Week 1.
Central wins if: It hangs onto the ball. The Bears lost two early fumbles last week, dropped catches and bobbled snaps in the spring. Those mistakes can't happen against the Cobras.
Hudson wins if: The offense finally clicks. QB Joey Caruso and RB Noah Siegrist have talent but have not put together drives yet. The Cobras can be one of the county's most improved teams if they start to capitalize on their potential.
Baker: Hudson learned some of its weaknesses last week by playing a good team (Springstead). The Cobras will correct enough mistakes to start the season with a win. Hudson, 24-13.
LaRiviere: Mark Kantor took over the Cobras without much fanfare in 2012 but had the team thinking postseason before the year was out. He has the roster focused this season, and it all begins with this game. Hudson, 38-7.
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.
Thursday, the Florida High School Athletic Association denied Nature Coast's appeal to reduce the suspension to one game. Blackwood's suspension remains at three weeks. Coach Charles Liggett said Hernando County School District officials told the school to weaken the wording in its appeal over whether Blackwood threw a punch. The officials wrote in their report that Blackwood threw a punch, but Liggett said the game film showed he did not.
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 protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.