Just call it crunch night. • Five North of Tampa-area teams play significant games tonight that will either determine or go a long way toward determining who will go to the playoffs. • For Alonso, Freedom, Wharton, Sickles and Jefferson, a season's worth of work could be rewarded or denied. • While Alonso (at Plant) and Jefferson (hosting Spoto) will play games that will determine outright district champions, Freedom, Wharton and Sickles will try to secure second place in their leagues and the postseason berth that goes with it. • Freedom, with one loss in Class 5A, District 7 play, and Wharton, 1-0 in league play despite a losing overall mark, square off tonight against each other for the likely No. 2 spot. • The importance of the game isn't lost on first-year Freedom coach James Harrell. • "It's a big district game for us," he said. "It's Wharton. It's our rival. It's for the battle of New Tampa. It's for second in the district. We have to be ready to come out and play hard." • In other contests, Sickles will try to secure its second-ever playoff spot by beating Leto. Chamberlain and Gaither continue disappointing seasons, and first-year foes Strawberry Crest (0-4) and Steinbrenner (1-3) face off again, this time in Lutz. Steinbrenner won the first meeting on opening night 16-8. • All of tonight's kickoffs are scheduled for 7:30.
ALONSO (3-3, 1-0 in Class 5A, District 5) at PLANT (5-1, 1-0 in 5A-5)
Last week: Plant defeated Spoto 27-13; Alonso was off.
Last year: Did not play.
The skinny: Plant steams ahead toward the Class 5A playoffs after winning the state 4A championship last year. But will it go as a district winner or a wildcard? That is up to Alonso.
The edge: The Ravens are a good team, but Plant is a great team. Plant wins.
CHAMBERLAIN (0-1, 0-7 in 5A-5) at GAITHER (1-5, 0-1 in 5A-5)
Last week: Gaither lost to Plant City 28-0; Chamberlain lost to Armwood 53-0.
Last year: Chamberlain beat Gaither 45-13.
The skinny: These two proud programs have fallen on hard times. How hard? They come into this meeting a combined 1-12 having been collectively outscored 464-70 this season.
The edge: Gaither and Chamberlain have each scored 35 points all season and each team has been shut out three times this year. How about a tie tonight?
FREEDOM (3-2, 0-1 in 5A-7) at WHARTON (2-4, 1-0)
Last week: Freedom defeated Bloomingdale 32-19; Wharton was off.
Last year: Freedom beat Wharton 29-24.
The skinny: Freedom quarterback Tyler Guy passed for a touchdown and ran for a score while compiling almost 200 yards in total offense in the Patriots' win last week. Wharton has been held to seven points or less in three of its four losses.
The edge: Freedom can score points — and will in a win against its neighborhood rival.
SPOTO (6-1, 2-0 in 3A-8) at JEFFERSON (4-1, 2-0 in 3A-8)
Last week: Spoto lost to Plant 27-13; Jefferson was off.
Last year: Did not play.
The skinny: Spoto's defense has pitched four shutouts this season and before last week's loss, had allowed only 20 points all season. Meanwhile, Jefferson's go-go offense is averaging just shy of 30 points a game.
The Edge: Spoto's defense against Jefferson's offense. A slight edge to Jefferson in this one.
SICKLES (5-2, 1-1 in 4A-10) at LETO (1-5, 0-2 in 5A-5)
Last week: Sickles lost to Durant 20-15; Leto lost to Newsome 20-3.
Last year: Leto defeated Sickles 30-6.
The skinny: If Sickles can take any solace in last week's loss against a good Durant team, it wasn't a district game and it was the kind of game the Gryphons would have lost by three touchdowns in past seasons. Leto, meanwhile, tries to finish a disappointing season strong.
The edge: Sickles gets back to winning ways and nails a playoff spot.
Rod Gipson can be reached at email@example.com