CARROLLWOOD — Heading into today's preseason football games, north Hillsborough teams find themselves in three categories.
There are the haves: defending district champions Gaither and Chamberlain. The have-nots: slowly improving squads Leto and Freedom. And the somewhere in between: Alonso and playoff participants of a year ago Wharton, Jefferson and Sickles.
After back-to-back playoff appearances, defending Class 5A, District 5 Gaither is looking to make it three in a row. Chamberlain, the 5A-6 champ, has an even more impressive streak — nine straight postseason appearances and 15 total for Chiefs coach Billy Turner, who is returning for his 30th season at the school.
But there may be more intriguing questions about the teams just below the top tier.
Can Sickles repeat its Cinderella season of a year ago, when it won a school-record seven games and made its first playoff appearance?
Wharton made the playoffs last season at 5-5 but had far more talent on its roster. Can the Wildcats rebound with a strong season and challenge district rival Gaither?
Jefferson won four regular season games last season but looked like world-beaters in the opening round of the playoffs. With a rebuilt squad, which Dragons' team will show up this year?
Will Freedom fare better in year two under coach Marquel Blackwell? And what to make of Alonso, which missed the playoffs last year?
Although tonight's tuneups don't count and won't answer all questions, fans can get a few clues from these games. All kickoffs are scheduled for 7:30.
CHAMBERLAIN at JESUIT
This marks a chance to see if Chamberlain's offensive unit can be as strong as it was last season. The Chiefs return playmakers at quarterback (Donta Aycock), running back (Kenny Allen and Lamond Scott) and wide receiver (Anthony Williams). A bigger concern for Turner may be the Chamberlain defense.
DURANT at GAITHER
Gaither overcame an 0-2 start last year and a relatively inexperienced quarterback in Kamren Hawkins to make the playoffs. The team did so mainly on the legs of running back Jarvis Giles, who ran for more than 1,000 yards for the second straight year and has verbally committed to the University of Tennessee. Giles is back for his senior year, and Hawkins is more experienced and has a standout wide receiver in Justin Lattimore.
WHARTON at PLANT
The Wildcats' slump to a .500 regular season last year was as much of a surprise as the team still being able to manage a playoff appearance. Senior quarterback Andrew Clifford and wideout Khiry White lead an offense on a decidedly defensive team. The Wharton D has standout returning safety Jairus Jones, who at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds plays more like a linebacker. A three-year starter who led the Wildcats with 89 tackles last year, Jones and friends face a serious test in powerhouse Plant.
BRANDON at SICKLES
Was last season an aberration for the Gryphons? Sickles will want to put to rest any notions of that with a solid performance against a good Brandon squad. Quarterback Cullen O'Brien is back but will be playing behind a rebuilding offensive line. Also, Sickles graduated several key playmakers from its worst-to-almost-first team of a year ago.
COUNTRYSIDE at ALONSO
Despite a 5-1 start to the season, Alonso slumped at the end, losing four games in a row to close out the regular season and missing the postseason. Standout defensive end Demonte McAllister leads the Ravens, who also have offensive stalwarts in quarterback C.J. Bennett and receiver Jonathan Armand.
SPOTO at LETO
After two wins in his first season and three last year, coach Hugh Dehnert wants to keep improving a rebuilding Leto program. A good showing, if not a win, against Spoto would help. With early games against Sickles, Robinson and Lennard, the Falcons feel they have a chance to get off to a good start. Look for plenty of handoffs to Jeremy Deering and Antwoun Howard for the Falcons out of their "Spin O" offensive formation.
ZEPHYRHILLS at FREEDOM
Not a lot went right for the Patriots last season. Freedom was in some games but could only point to its 49-48 win against Middleton by the end of the year. The Patriots will try to improve this year with returning quarterback Josh Grady, who started eight games last season as a freshman. Only three returning starters on defense could hinder the Patriots, who did look sharp at times in a spring win against King.
JEFFERSON at TITUSVILLE ASTRONAUT
The Dragons are the lone northern Hillsborough team traveling out of the county for its exhibition game. Coach Mike Fenton will get a good look at sophomore quarterback Quentin Williams. The Dragons will again play perhaps the toughest schedule in the county. Jefferson opens regular season play Sept. 5 against powerhouse Hillsborough. During the season, the Dragons play Gaither, Armwood, Plant and Chamberlain, all playoff teams a year ago. Jefferson lost all those games in '07.