When Gaither kicks off its season tonight at Alonso, the Cowboys will be facing more than just the Ravens. For the first time in years, the Cowboys will face expectations.
After a breakout season in 2011 under new coach Jason Stokes, which saw Gaither win two playoff games, plenty of eyes will be watching to see if the Cowboys can continue their success. After all, it was Gaither's best playoff run since 2000.
The "what does Gaither do for an encore?" scenario is just one prep football story line that will play out this fall among North of Tampa area squads.
Along with Gaither and Alonso, fellow rivals Sickles and Steinbrenner could compete for playoff spots. And Berkeley Prep, coming off its best season in school history, has lofty expectations as well.
Meanwhile, there are many talented players on the area's rosters.
While quarterback Alex McGough and athlete-QB Shug Oyegunle lead Gaither, other standout signal callers include Brandon Hawkins (Alonso), Brad Mayes (Berkeley Prep) and Nate Mills (Sickles).
But the area's running backs may make even more noise.
Chamberlain has struggled in recent seasons, but tailback Xavier Johnson turned into one of the county's best running back last year. And Carrollwood Day School running back Robert Davis has helped put his school's relatively new program on the map.
Opening night will be split over two days this year because of the Republican National Convention. Among tonight's games, Berkeley Prep and Carrollwood Day host out-of town teams. On Saturday, Alonso and Sickles host local rivals and Wharton and the Times HomeTeam 100's best area player, Vernon Hargreaves, open the season at King.
All kickoffs are 7:30 p.m. unless noted.
Cambridge Christian at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic, Spring Hill
Last week: Cambridge lost to Lakeland Christian 42-0, Bishop McLaughlin lost to St. Petersburg Catholic 64-0.
Why you should go: To see what Cambridge does next. After going 6-4 overall last season and .500 in the nine-team Class 2A, District 5, the Lancers will look to improve on last year and fight for a playoff spot. And it helps that Cambridge has one of the area's best playmakers in standout WR Robbie Robertson.
Orlando Trinity Prep at Berkeley Prep, 7 p.m.
Last week: Trinity Prep lost to Foundation Academy 17-10, Berkeley Prep defeated Sarasota Out-of-Door Academy 41-12.
Why you should go: To kick off the post-Nelson Agholor era of Berkeley Prep football. And just in case you're not into the past, there is plenty of future with the Bucs in sophomore QB Brad Mayes, who threw for three touchdowns in the kickoff classic. Plus, Berkeley fans can get their first look at the new, spectacular 53,000-square foot Straz Family Field House.
Imagine School of North Port at Carrollwood Day School, 4 p.m.
Last week: Neither team played.
Why you should go: To watch CDS tailback Robert Davis begin his pursuit of 2,000 yards this season. If the standout runner hits 1,996 this season, he'll become Hillsborough County's all-time leading career rusher. If that's not enough, aren't you curious to see what kind of football the Imagine School of North Port plays?
Gaither at Alonso
Last week: Gaither lost to Sickles 13-7, Alonso defeated Spoto 31-6.
Why you should go: Gaither's preseason game against Sickles was a hard-fought rivalry contest. And tonight's game against Alonso is another rivalry affair. Plus, the QB matchup between Gaither's Alex McGough and Alonso's Brandon Hawkins should be a good one.
Steinbrenner at Sickles
Last week: Steinbrenner tied Newsome 34-34; Sickles defeated Gaither 13-7.
Why you should go: Steinbrenner's do-it-all player Jon Marc Carrier is worth the price of admission. Carrier scored four touchdowns in the Warriors' exhibition tie last week. Sickles counters with its own offensive playmakers in QB Nate Mills, WR Bilal Salat and RB Ray Ray McCloud, who has one of the best names in the county.
Durant at Freedom
Last week: Durant defeated Bloomingdale 34-17; Freedom lost to Strawberry Crest 29-0.
Why you should go: To watch Jamarlon Hamilton run around, over and possibly through Freedom defenders. Durant's bruising senior FB/RB topped 150 yards four times in 2011 and is back for more this year. Hamilton scored four touchdowns in the exhibition tune-up last week. Meanwhile, Freedom fans are looking to see if coach Todd Donohoe is the answer. Donohoe is the program's sixth coach since the start of the 2006 season.
Chamberlain at Bloomingdale
Last week: Chamberlain lost to East Bay 55-20; Bloomingdale lost to Durant 34-17.
Why you should go: Chamberlain has one of the county's most sizzling runners in TB Xavier Johnson, who tallied 1,700 yards last season. On the other side of the ball, QB Adam Posateri leads an up-tempo Bulls' spread attack capable of scoring some points.
Blake at Leto
Last week: Leto lost to Lennard 33-13; Blake lost to Brandon 20-6.
Why you should go: It's time to see if Leto can compete. The Falcons haven't won a game on the field in the past two years. Even worse, Leto hasn't seen the playoffs since 1999. Not that Blake has been much better. Blake hasn't been to the postseason since 2000, but hey, there's always the Blake band to watch.
Wharton at King
Last week: Wharton defeated Riverview 35-9; King defeated Middleton 21-7.
Why you should go: To see if Wharton's Vernon Hargreaves really is the best player in the bay area. A player who can line up at QB, RB, WR, KR, CB and S, he certainly is the most versatile, if not the most talented. And with Hargreaves, a University of Florida commit, Wharton figures to be in the thick of the Class 8A, District 6 chase with defending state champ Plant.