DOVER — It's not officially the start of the high school sports season, but it will feel like it to most everyone involved.
Preseason football takes over Tampa Bay tonight and for the three Plant City teams it signals the most tangible moments yet to truly judge where they stand.
While the results don't count, the lights will be on, the competition will be real.
Strawberry Crest plays host to Freedom High.
And it provides a prime example of what purpose a preseason football game can serve. For a team like the Chargers, with a brand-new coach, a test run is highly desirable.
"It's my first year as a head coach here," said an eager-sounding John Kelly. "The biggest thing is it gives us another opportunity to evaluate our kids. And to hopefully continue to see the improvement and gains we made over the summer."
Those gains have been both mental and physical.
Kelly says the Chargers worked hard on strength and conditioning, and have grown more mature.
Then there's the understanding of Kelly's schemes. Kelly has implemented a 3-4 front on defense.
"We will mix it up a little," Kelly said. "The big thing is mentality: we want to play smart, assignment football and aggressively run to the ball."
Two of the three starting linemen were unable to participate in the spring game due to injury, so Kelly looks forward to how expected big contributors Austin Vanvalkenburg and Zachary Weber show on Friday.
The outside linebackers will sometimes be called upon to act more like defensive ends. Jarrett Gretebeck should be a big playmaker for the Chargers.
On the other side of the ball, Tristan Hyde has won the starting quarterback job though backup Alex Carswell will see the field.
"They continue to push each other," Kelly said. "Alex, we'll have some option-type looks for him, Alex can make things happen with his feet. Tristan is more of a passer."
Kelly said the Chargers will combine elements of the spread offense with a normal I-formation. Whatever the alignment, Chris Perez will get the majority of the carries at running back. And Karel Hamilton will get as many touches as possible given he's one of the most talented wide receivers around.
Like the Chargers, the Patriots have a new head coach and a new system. But there's a little more to it: Freedom coach Todd Donohoe led the Chargers program its first two seasons before resigning in June of 2011.
Kelly was one of Donohoe's assistants at Strawberry Crest.
For Donohoe, Friday begins a straight run through the three Plant City area squads. Freedom opens its regular season Sept. 8 against Durant and then the Patriots travel to play Plant City .