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 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.
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 a district race that was supposed to be between heavyweights Armwood, Hillsborough and Jefferson. Sickles (1-1 in the district) needs to rebound from its loss to Armwood if it wants to stay in the conversation. Hillsborough (3-0), 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.
Alonso (5-0) at Plant City (5-0)
LAST WEEK: Alonso beat Bloomingdale 20-14 and Plant City defeated Durant 43-12.
THE SKINNY: This ranks as the area's premier matchup with a pair of undefeated teams squaring off. Plant City dismantled crosstown rival Durant 43-12 and in the process, unveiled another weapon. Antwon Armstrong picked off three passes on defense and had three catches for 81 yards and a score on offense. Quarterback Bennie Coney continues to impress, going 13-of-15 for 377 yards and five TDs against a solid Cougars defense. Alonso has relied on the Brandons (RB Brandon Holloway and QB Brandon Hawkins) all season, but Hawkins injured his shoulder last week and may be questionable.
Freedom (1-5) at Wharton (1-4)
LAST WEEK: Freedom defeated Chamberlain 14-7; Wharton lost to Plant 37-19.
THE SKINNY: Freedom's offense has not done much this year (50 points in six games) but did just enough to deliver coach Tchecoy Blount his first victory of the year last week. Wharton, on a two-game losing streak, hasn't fared much better. However, the Wildcats have one of the area's most underrated players in RB Darius Page, who has a combined 550 yards of offense and seven TDs this season.
Durant (3-2) at Chamberlain (0-5)
LAST WEEK: Durant lost to Plant City 43-12; Chamberlain lost to Freedom 14-7.
THE SKINNY: Durant gave up 22 second-half points in its rivalry loss to Plant City last week. Struggling Chamberlain has seen standout RB Xavier Johnson leave two of the last three games early with injuries. After being forced out with cramps in a game last month, a high ankle sprain sidelined him in the loss to Freedom. He may be hobbled if he plays tonight.
Gaither (3-2) at East Bay (3-2)
LAST WEEK: Gaither defeated Steinbrenner 37-7; East Bay defeated Riverview 38-6.
THE SKINNY: After winning just one game last year, East Bay has a legitimate shot at .500 this season. The Indians scored on five of their six first-half possessions against Riverview and built a 32-0 halftime lead. Under new coach Jason Stokes, the Cowboys have been up and down but showed a lot last week in knocking off Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner (3-2) at Riverview (2-3)
LAST WEEK: Steinbrenner lost to Gaither 37-7; Riverview lost to East Bay 38-6.
THE SKINNY: The Sharks have dropped their last three by a combined 136-6, including a pair of shutouts. Chase Freeman's 1-yard TD run in the fourth quarter against East Bay last week prevented a third straight shutout. Steinbrenner will be eager to rebound after losing to neighborhood rival Gaither.
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.
Leto (0-6) at Bloomingdale (3-3)
LAST WEEK: Leto lost to Armwood 68-0; Bloomingdale lost to Alonso 20-14.
THE SKINNY: The Bulls lost a tough game to a very good Alonso team last week but continue their impressive turnaround after a two-win 2010 campaign. Tonight is a golden opportunity for the Bulls to get over .500.
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. Meanwhile, Tampa Catholic 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.
Bradenton Christian (2-3) at Carrollwood Day (3-3), 4 p.m.
LAST WEEK: Bradenton Christian defeated Canterbury 35-14 on Sept. 30; Carrollwood Day lost to Canterbury 26-20.
THE SKINNY: These two squads represent Class 2A, District 5 leader Canterbury's last two victories. That leaves both Bradenton Christian (2-2 in 2A-5) and CDS (1-3) scrambling to remain in the district race. CDS will continue to rely on its big three on offense: QB Deuce Gruden (seven TDs), RB Robert Davis (947 yds, 14 TDs) and WR Dillon Floyd (13 catches, four TDs).
Cambridge (4-2) at Keswick Christian (3-2)
LAST WEEK: Cambridge lost to Calvary Christian 48-35; Keswick defeated Northside Christian 27-0.
THE SKINNY: Cambridge's defense had trouble with Calvary last week, yielding 336 yards of offense. Still, the Lancers got solid outings from QB Phillip Johnson, who threw for two touchdowns and WR Robbie Robertson, who had a receiving score and a kickoff return for a score. Despite the loss, a win puts Cambridge (3-2) right back in the middle of the 2A-5 race. Keswick (2-2) is a game back but still not out of the district playoff race.
Times correspondent Brandon Wright contributed to this report. Rod Gipson can be reached at email@example.com.