Clermont-East Ridge at Hernando, 7:30 p.m.
A year ago, Hernando traveled to Clermont for its season-opener against East Ridge, badly in need of a bounce-back effort after an exhibition loss at Pasco.
That matchup with the Class 7A Knights proved to be the perfect tonic, in the form of a 42-26 victory for the 6A Leopards.
When East Ridge enters Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium tonight, this time it'll face a Hernando squad flying high thanks to a 21-7 preseason triumph over the rival Pirates.
"The guys realize it was a big win last week, but this is a new game," Hernando head coach Dwayne Mobley said. "And we can't expect nobody to sit down for us because we beat Pasco last week."
The game pits two playoff participants from the previous season – the Knights ended up going 9-4 and advancing to a regional final in 2011.
So for the second week in a row, the Leopards (8-3 and district champs last year) should receive a stiff test.
"They're big, their line is big and they're aggressive. It's a well-coached team," Mobley said.
"Every game we play is going to be a big test, because everybody is trying to come in and beat us."
This will also serve as the official debut of Mobley, taking over for John Palmer, who resigned in the spring.
Against Pasco, senior Tyrail Hawkins picked up where he left off as a junior, playing a hand in all three Leopard touchdowns.
Not only did Hawkins run for 157 yards on 12 carries, including a 59-yard dash to the end zone, but he also threw for a score and returned an interception for another.
Meanwhile, the vaunted Hernando defense lived up to its billing, limiting the typically potent Pirates to 195 yards while recording five sacks and three turnovers.
Pasco did rest D-I prospect Janarion Grant due to an ankle injury, but the Leopards nonetheless celebrated their first win over the Pirates since 1999.
"It was a very big deal. It was their first time beating Pasco and even scoring on them," Mobley said. "Everybody was hyped. With us beating them, the guys realize 'We could succeed at doing the stuff coaches are telling us to do.'"
They hope that momentum carries over into what figures to be another tough battle with the Knights.
"I think it's very critical," Mobley said. "If we keep winning, guys' confidence is going to get higher and higher and higher.
"We want to keep building on wins. We don't want to end up going backward."
Weeki Wachee at Central, 7:30 p.m.
Central is in rebuilding mode. Weeki Wachee is simply trying to build.
Both teams will realistically scratch and claw for wins this year, as they work through their inexperience. That makes tonight's game at the Bears' Den all the more intriguing.
History will say this is the Hornets' first-ever varsity contest, though they do have spring and fall exhibitions under their belts.
Thus this marks the first edition of what has the potential to expand into a literal backyard rivalry.
"The dividing line is Hexum (Road)," Central head coach Mike Einspahr said. "That's not far from Central. A lot of their kids would be at Central if Weeki Wachee weren't in existence."
"The kids are excited, the school is excited," Weeki Wachee head coach Mark Lee said. "It's the first game and it's against Central, and there probably couldn't be a better opponent.
"I look forward to watching this rivalry grow throughout the years. It's the Battle of Hexum."
The Bears (1-9 in 2011) are feeling some positive vibes coming off a 40-7 loss to Zephyrhills in last week's fall classic.
Though the score doesn't indicate it, the game was competitive for the three quarters that featured starters, a major step in the right direction for Central.
"We found some kids who were hungry and we're not dinged up at all," Einspahr said. "We feel like we found some kids who really want to play."
Sophomore Cody Brooks will again get the start under center, Einspahr said, after he went 4-of-5 for 22 yards a week ago.
But Einspahr added that junior Cole Teater (6-of-11 for 84 yards, two interceptions) would see some playing time. Teater scored the Bears' touchdown against the Bulldogs on a 1-yard quarterback sneak.
Central hasn't posted a victory on the field since Oct. 29, 2010 when it defeated Lecanto. The Bears have lost 12 in a row, though one turned into a forfeit.
Against the rookie Hornets, though, they are in the unaccustomed position of favorite. Now it's a matter of getting the job done.
"My kids don't look at Weeki Wachee as a first-year program," Einspahr said. "We look at them as a neighborhood opponent. They've got athletes. They're coached very well. We know their kids are going to play well."
The Hornets, who took a 30-7 loss in the spring at Springstead, fell at Crystal River last Thursday, 59-12.
"We played scared. Our kids haven't played at that level yet," Lee said. "We tried to fix that this week.
"Our running game needs to be better than last week. We need to make sure we secure the ball, win the turnover battle. And the biggest thing is our tackling. We've got to do a heck of a lot better job than we did last week."
Lee said he'd have a full complement of players available for this one.
As much as starting off team history 1-0 would make for a great story, Lee noted it's about being competitive, even against a county foe that has gone through recent struggles.
"Mike has done a great job there," Lee said. "I don't think people realize what he came into at Central. He's done a good job of building it up, getting numbers out there, and it looks like he's finally getting the kids to buy into his system."
Crystal River at Nature Coast, 7:30 p.m.
Nature Coast was the only Hernando County squad that didn't take part in preseason action.
So the Sharks are more than primed to host the Pirates at Shark Tank Stadium, a matchup of .500 teams from 2011 and former district rivals.
"We've been going at each other it seems like forever," Nature Coast head coach Charles Liggett said. "So it's going to be good. The kids are ready to go up against somebody else."
Liggett and his staff did take in Crystal River's game with Weeki Wachee last week.
"They didn't make many mistakes and executed well. That says a lot. They're ready to play," Liggett said. "It looks like they've got a full arsenal of tricks. Defensively, we have to be ready to stop their run. The style they run (Wing T) is difficult to stop."
With many returning starters on defense, Liggett feels that unit will be up to the task. He sees an advantage in speed for the Sharks, but anticipates the outcome could come down to the battle in the trenches.
What remains to be seen is if Nature Coast can pass well enough to balance out senior running back Matt Breida.
Junior Ryan Quigley looks to have won the starting quarterback job for the moment, yet Liggett predicted that fellow juniors Trevor Castro and Luis Espinosa would take some snaps, as well.
"We want to get further than last year and start off well," Liggett said. "A win Friday night against Crystal River would be a great start."
Springstead at Ridgewood, 7:30 p.m.
After an impressive 37-0 victory over Hudson this past Friday, Springstead takes on another Pasco County club trying to rebound under a new coach
Jay Fulmer, 31-22 in four seasons at Gulf, guides the Rams (1-9 in 2011) as they host the Eagles, coming off a 4-6 year.
In the preseason, Ridgewood lost to Palm Harbor University in Fulmer's first game at the helm, 49-13.
"They had a tough game last week but they were playing a very quality opponent, and it was the first time out with Coach Fulmer and his numbers were low," Springstead head coach Bill Vonada said. "I believe Coach Fulmer will have them ready to play.
"They're a very aggressive team. Knowing Coach Fulmer's history, I know they're going be a very well-coached team, you can see that on film. We are going to have to play better than we did (against Hudson) in order to compete with them."
The Eagles, still tinkering with their offensive line, are similar to the Rams in terms of both collective physical and roster size, Vonada said
He also pointed to Fulmer's unique defensive scheme, which figures to challenge Springstead's triple option attack.
"They have 11 guys within five yards of the line of scrimmage," Vonada said. "They match up, they play a lot of man and bring some pressure.
"It's not a district game, but it's the opener of the season. I think momentum in the high school game is such a huge thing. It's critical for us to get out and play well right off the bat, and the other thing is we're striving for consistency."