CITRUS PARK — When district realignment took place last offseason and the murderers' row lineup of Class 6A, District 8 was announced, few thought Sickles had a real chance.
Grouped with perennial playoff participants Armwood, Jefferson and Hillsborough, the task looked daunting at best. Armwood has been one of the area's most dominant teams for most of the past decade, Jefferson was coming off a state championship, and Hillsborough, though not quite as dominant as in the past, still could rely on its tradition of winning.
Fast forward a month and things have changed.
While Armwood (3-0 in 6A-8 and top-ranked in the state) seems even more dominant this year, Jefferson (0-3) has struggled to replace the graduated members of its title team and Hillsborough (3-0) appears to be back in form. But right there in the middle of the race for the second playoff spot is Sickles (1-1) — along with an improved King (2-1) squad.
By the time tonight's games are over, we'll know a whole lot more about the race for that second 6A-8 playoff spot.
Coming off its 35-0 loss to Armwood, Sickles has to travel to face Hillsborough. Meanwhile, King could make its own district statement by defeating Jefferson.
In other contests tonight, Cambridge tries to stay in the Class 2A, District 5 race in a game at Keswick Christian, Robinson plays at Gibbs in a 5A-8 matchup and pride will be on the line in New Tampa as neighborhood foes Freedom and Wharton face off at the Wildcats' stadium.
All kickoffs are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. unless noted.
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Sickles (4-1) at Hillsborough (5-1)
LAST WEEK: Sickles lost to Armwood 35-0; Hillsborough defeated Jefferson 49-20.
THE SKINNY: A huge Class 6A, District 8 contest. Sickles, along with King, has fought its way into the conversation in a district race that was supposed to pit heavyweights Armwood, Hillsborough and Jefferson. Sickles (1-1 in 6A-8) needs to rebound from its loss to Armwood if it wants to stay in the mix. Hillsborough (3-0), meanwhile, is fresh off a huge district win against the Dragons and looking to continue its momentum heading into next week's even bigger district showdown with top-ranked Armwood.
Robinson (4-1) at Gibbs (2-3)
LAST WEEK: Robinson defeated Blake 48-26 on Sept. 30; Gibbs lost to Lakewood 27-7.
THE SKINNY: Robinson (3-1) is coming off a bye and must win to keep pace with Lakewood for the second playoff spot in the Class 5A-8 race. Gibbs' loss to rival Lakewood was a blow to the Gladiators' (2-2) district hopes, but a win tonight could help them bounce back. The Knights, behind an offense that averages almost five TDs a game, have won two district games in a row since its mid-September loss to 5A-8 leader Jesuit. Gibbs will counter with a tough defense. Before giving up 27 points to Lakewood last week, Gibbs' defense had only allowed 27 points all season.
Jefferson (1-4) at King (3-3)
LAST WEEK: Jefferson lost to Hillsborough 49-20; King defeated Leto 73-8.
THE SKINNY: King has had a pair of cruise-control wins the past two weeks against Strawberry Crest and Leto. Traditionally strong Jefferson awaits tonight, but the Dragons have limped to a 1-4 start. Dual-threat QB Greg Windham has thrown for a team-high 945 yards and is tops on the Lions with 292 rushing yards, 157 more than King's second highest runner. The winner stays in contention for a playoff spot, while the loser is all but eliminated.
Plant (5-0) at Brandon (2-3)
LAST WEEK: Plant defeated Wharton 37-19; Brandon defeated Newsome 34-0.
THE SKINNY: Brandon could certainly be 4-1 heading in to tonight's matchup with Plant. The Eagles lost to Durant and Sickles by a combined 15 points and had the biggest splash win of last week, pounding Newsome 34-0. Rightfully so, Eagles' running back Tyrell Garner gets most of the press. But fellow backfield mate Cyrus Dooley emerged as a threat, running for 147 yards and three TDs against the Wolves. Plant is Plant, which means they will be well-coached and commit few mistakes. Brandon will have to play at its best to pull off the upset.
Blake (2-4) at Spoto (2-3)
LAST WEEK: Blake defeated Middleton 41-19; Spoto defeated Dunedin 14-7.
THE SKINNY: Spoto's speed on the defensive side of the ball was evident last week against Dunedin. The unit pitched a shutout, with the lone Dunedin points coming off a fumble return for a TD. Spoto's Geronimo Allison tossed a 30-yard TD pass and hauled in a 2-yard score against the Falcons. That speed should help again even though Blake is coming off its first win in four years against rival Middleton.
Jesuit (5-1) at Dunedin (2-4)
LAST WEEK: Jesuit defeated Lennard 78-0; Dunedin lost to Spoto 14-7.
THE SKINNY: Jesuit powered up its running game last week and produced a stunning nine rushing touchdowns in its romp over Lennard. Look for the Tigers to continue that trend against a Dunedin team that has struggled to produce points.
Tampa Catholic (4-1) at Trinity Prep (2-4)
LAST WEEK: Tampa Catholic lost to Clearwater Central Catholic 24-17; Trinity Prep (Winter Park) lost to Orlando First Academy 36-5.
THE SKINNY: Trinity Prep has lost two of its last three contests and been erratic in doing so, scoring 41 points in its win but being blasted 71-5 in its two recent losses. Tampa Catholic, meanwhile, wants to quickly erase the bitter taste of last week's loss to CCC, in which the Crusaders gave up a late touchdown to lose by seven points.
Times correspondent Brandon Wright contributed to this report. Rod Gipson can be reached at email@example.com.