Saturday, February 24, 2018

Ten high school football openers to watch

Week 1 is packed with marquee matchups. Here are 10 of the most intriguing:

Armwood at Tampa Bay Tech

Lowdown: Perhaps one of the best matchups all season. Both teams made the playoffs last season and both lost in the second round. Both return dynamic quarterbacks, and both defenses had shutouts in their preseason games. Armwood, which beat TBT 38-14 at home last season, has dominated this series since 2004. The Hawks have won nine straight on the field, although the wins in 2010 and 2011 were later forfeits.

What's the hype: This will be Evan Davis' first regular-season game as Armwood coach. He was previously the offensive coordinator. Both teams are likely playoff contenders win or lose. There is tons of talent on both sidelines. TBT quarterback Michael Penix, a Tennessee commit, is fun to watch. Armwood quarterback Devin Black can run and throw. Should be a wild game.

Quotable: "You can believe the hype. We feel that we're that good. We've got some guys and we believe we can play with anybody on our schedule." — TBT coach Jayson Roberts

Charlie Kaijo | Times

Armwood QB Devin Black

Charlie Kaijo | Times

Tampa Bay Tech QB Michael Penix

RELATED: Armwood vs. Tampa Bay Tech teeming with Division I-A talent

Plant at Hillsborough

Lowdown: Two of the premier programs in the area square off for just the second time in six years. Last season, they were supposed to meet in Week 2, but the game was rained out. The Terriers, loaded with Division I-A talent, were itching for a rescheduled matchup to have their defense tested for the playoffs. Now, they get their chance.

What's the hype: Both teams have the potential to make deep playoff runs, so this game was a no-brainer to schedule because of the points each can pick up in the new playoff system, win or lose. One of the best matchups will be at quarterback. Hillsborough's Tyler Thomas and Plant's Jordan McCloud are elusive and make big plays on the ground or through the air.

Quotable: "We have a tough schedule right from the start. This might be one of Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia's most talented teams he's had in years." — Plant coach Robert Weiner

Charlie Kaijo | Times

Hillsborough QB Tyler Thomas

Scott Purks | Special to the Times

Plant QB Jordan McCloud

RELATED: Plant-Hillsborough rivalry steeped in history

Nature Coast at IMG White

Lowdown: First-year Sharks coach Cory Johns inherits a team on a 22-game regular-season win streak, currently the longest in the area. Johns already showed a willingness to put that streak on the line by traveling across the state for quality competition. Last week, Nature Coast went to Tallahassee Godby for a preseason game. The Sharks have another road trip this week against a new program under the IMG umbrella.

What's the hype: IMG attracts the nation's most coveted recruits. But the program was becoming too big. To find playing time for prospects on their oversized roster, the Ascenders added a second team that will complement the elite squad. Nature Coast faces that new squad.

Quotable: "I scheduled IMG because nobody else called. I couldn't get anybody else to play us. They happened to call and were willing to play so we decided to go down there. We have to win our district to control what we're doing, but you're also hoping to play people that are pretty good, and this should be a good test." — Johns

Monica Herndon | Times

Nature Coast coach Cory Johns

RELATED: Nature Coast puts unbeaten streak on the line vs. IMG White

Wesley Chapel at Sunlake

Lowdown: Though the schools are only about 10 miles apart, they do not play each other annually. This is first meeting since 2014. The last three contests (2010, 2013-14) were routs, with the Seahawks winning a combined 102-7. This one should be more competitive. The Wildcats have turned things around under second-year coach Tony Egan and are favored to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

What's the hype: Wesley Chapel (7-2) and Sunlake (7-3) were both solid last season, but each faltered down the stretch and missed the postseason. So there is an emphasis to get off to a fast start — and pick up points under the new playoff system — in the opener. The Wildcats also have two big-time recruits: athlete Isaiah Bolden (Oregon) and lineman Chaz Neal (FSU).

Quotable: "This game is huge. We want to prove to everyone that we're a playoff team and that's why we want to start with a 6A team that has a history of being one of the better teams in (Pasco County). We just missed the playoffs, and with the new point system, we made our three out-of-district games vs. larger classes and against teams who either have a rich history of playoffs or made it the past year or two." — Wesley Chapel coach Tony Egan

Loren Elliott | Times

Wesley Chapel DE Chaz Neal

Largo at St. Petersburg

Lowdown: Largo hopes to erase the memory of a 3-6 season. St. Petersburg was 8-2 and a playoff team in 2016. The Green Devils fell behind the Packers early in last year's meeting before pulling away for a 31-10 win. Largo last beat St. Petersburg in 2015, 35-6. And here's an interesting tidbit: Largo coach Marcus Paschal was St. Petersburg cornerback Anthony Johnson's physical education teacher at John Hopkins Middle School.

What's the hype: Both teams have playoff hopes. Both have potentially good defenses and offenses that sputter at times. It is the start of three straight difficult weeks for the Packers, who follow St. Petersburg with East Lake and Palm Harbor University. St. Petersburg follows with city rivalries against Lakewood and Boca Ciega.

Quotable: "We want to make a statement. We want to prove we're better than we were last season." — Largo cornerback Cameron Tisdale

Dirk Shadd | Times

Largo DB/WR Calvin Lockett

Lara Cerri | Times

St. Petersburg ATH Jalynn Williams

RELATED: Calm (Largo) and clamorous (St. Petersburg) converge Friday night

East Lake at Palm Harbor University

Lowdown: Nothing stokes a rivalry like geography, and the proximity of both schools, which are roughly 10 miles apart, makes this feud all the more cherished. It also marks the regular-season debut for Hurricanes coach John Scargle, a longtime assistant at Clearwater Central Catholic.

What's the hype: Barring inclement weather, the ticket sales are expected to top 3,000. Judging from the past two games, expect a close contest. PHU won 14-10 two years ago. It was the first time the Hurricanes beat their neighboring rival. Last year, East Lake withstood a furious rally and held on to win 38-35.

Quotable: "The schools are located so close, and all the players and cheerleaders and band members know each other well. I have a lot of respect for Coach (Bob) Hudson and the program he has developed at East Lake. It will be a fantastic Friday night experience for all involved." — Scargle

Douglas R. Clifford | Times

PHU coach John Scargle

RELATED: East Lake-Palm Harbor U. rivalry trumps all others in Pinellas County

Zephyrhills at Wiregrass Ranch

Lowdown: These teams opened against each other last season, and it wasn't close. Wiregrass Ranch won 43-8 and went on to have a 7-3 record and make the playoffs. That game proved to be a bit of a fluke for Zephyrhills. After the loss, the Bulldogs won five straight and made the postseason. In 2015, Zephyrhills won this matchup 26-0.

What's the hype: The running game has been key in the past two meetings. Elijah Thomas is Zephyrhills' top back, though he'll need to do better than 2016's 24-yard effort vs. the Bulls. Wiregrass, meanwhile, must find a replacement for Da Da McGee, who recently transferred to Hillsborough High. In last year's game, McGee rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns.

Quotable: "It's two playoff teams and the points matter so you want to pick up as many as you can right from the start. We know it's a tremendous challenge because Zephyrhills has athletes all over the place." — Wiregrass Ranch coach Mark Kantor

Octavio Jones | Times

Wiregrass Ranch coach Mark Kantor

RELATED: Playoff ambitions evident in opener for Zephyrhills, Wiregrass Ranch

Clearwater Central Catholic at Berkeley Prep

Lowdown: This is the third year this game will be the season opener for both schools. CCC won both, 34-23 in 2015 and 44-27 last year. Both teams had nine-win seasons in 2016, and the Bucs lasted one round longer than the Marauders in the playoffs.

What's the hype: The Bucs' top two offensive threats, quarterback Davis Koetter and running back Gordon Stetson, have graduated. Likewise, CCC quarterback Jakob Parks and top running back Jervon Newton have graduated. Both teams must find replacements and that search begins Friday.

Quotable: "We've always felt like this is a series we should be playing with each other. We have great respect for CCC, and we know it will be a great challenge. We just have to find a way to be perfect for four quarters in order to win." — Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao

Andres Leiva | Times

Berkeley Prep WR Zach Mathis

Durant at Jesuit

Lowdown: These teams last played against each other in 2010, a 16-0 Jesuit win in the third game of the season. Jesuit spent the past two seasons opening against Lakewood Ranch and before that Plant. Durant opened against Hillsborough the past two seasons, so the Cougars are also used to difficult first games.

What's the hype: Jesuit has a 21-game regular-season win streak, and despite the graduation of top players like Malik Davis and Travell Harris, the Tigers will still be hard to beat. The Tigers did suffer a blow when talented freshman running back B.J. Graham broke his leg in the preseason game against Gaither. Will Durant be able to move the ball against what should be a stubborn Jesuit defense? The Cougars should have a good offense, led by quarterback Carlton Potter, receiver Agiye Hall and running back Cameron Myers.

Quotable: "Their offensive line has some size, which is typical of a Durant team. They do a good job in the weight room. And this year they have skill guys at quarterback, running back and receiver. We have to be ready for all of that. We've got our hands full." — Jesuit coach Matt Thompson

Scot Purks | Special to the Times

Durant RB Cameron Myers

Jefferson at Plant City

Lowdown: Plant City opened against Armwood the past two seasons, so don't expect the Raiders to be intimidated by the Dragons. Same with Jefferson, which opened against Tampa Bay Tech the past two seasons. They did face each other first in 2014, with Plant City winning 14-12.

What's the hype: Expectations are high for Jefferson, despite losing receiver Jermaine Eskridge to a broken arm. The offense should still be able to move ball and the defense has a talented secondary. Plant City lost running back Treshaun Ward to Tampa Bay Tech. The Raiders will get their first look at quarterback Ryan Overstreet, who transferred from Manatee to join first-year coach James Booth, a former offensive coordinator at Manatee.

Quotable: "There's pros and cons to playing a good opponent like Plant City in the first game. Ideally, you'd like to get a few games under your belt and find out the changes you need to make. Basically, there's no room for error. They look awfully good so we have to be at our best." — Jefferson coach Jeremy Earle

Monica Herndon | Times

Durant RB Cameron Myers

RELATED: Jefferson's Jermaine Eskridge out with a broken arm

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