© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002
The dates have been circled.
They may not be the absolute best 10 games of the season, but we've pored over the schedule and identified a can't-miss game each week.
A lot can change between now and November, but this itinerary will get you a look at nearly every team in the county, touching on both district playoff races and the county's top rivalries.
There are quirks -- no trips to Wesley Chapel, three dates at Pasco -- but when the playoffs begin Nov. 15, you'll have a good sense of the teams who are in and an understanding of how they got there.
The county's only rookie coach makes his debut at Ridgewood. Troy Cornwell's first three opponents (Hudson, Gulf, Mitchell) managed four, two and one victory last season. After that, six of the Rams' seven opponents are teams who had winning records last year.
A year ago, the Pirates spoiled the Mustangs' first-ever varsity home game, handing Mitchell a 59-13 drubbing. It was the most points allowed by the young Mustangs, and once the Mustangs are good enough to exact revenge, these are the scores they'll remember. After all, Pasco beat Wesley Chapel 59-8 in the Wildcats' first year.
The area's oldest rivalry stops in Dade City. That may not be good news for the Pirates. The road team has won the past five meetings. Both teams went to extremes last season. Each had at least one win and loss by more than 30 points. That shouldn't happen here. Three of the last four meetings have been decided by less than 10 points.
Who's king of the west side? Hudson had the most wins last year (with four), but River Ridge beat the Cobras 13-7 and went 3-1 against westside opponents. If a westside team makes a run at the playoffs, it will most likely be the winner of this non-district contest. An important westside undercard pits Gulf and Mitchell against each other in a battle of teams who managed one win last season.
The Wildcats don't play a team with a winning record until the fifth week of the season. So while Wesley Chapel might be undefeated going into this game, that perfect record will mean more if it's still around after it. Zephyrhills needs a win for a chance at a district title and home playoff game.
Last season's 63-13 loss at Bushnell cost the Pirates a spot in the playoffs, but Pasco brings back the toughest opponent on any county schedule this year. It's the first of four home games in five weeks for the Pirates, and an upset, while unlikely, could be huge for Pasco's second-half momentum.
This Thursday night showdown pits two teams who finished 7-4. Central opened the playoffs at home after winning a head-to-head matchup 30-15 at the Bears Den. If the Gators can avenge that loss, they could put themselves in position for their first home playoff game in three years.
The Gators have won the last five meetings, and if River Ridge wants to make the playoffs for the first time since 1998, this is the hurdle the Knights must get over. With a new coach at Central, the transition could have the district's second playoff berth up for grabs.
Last year's game was one of the rivalry's best. The Bulldogs rallied from a 20-point halftime deficit to sneak off with a last-minute touchdown and a 34-27 victory. Winning this game could again be the difference that puts one team in the playoffs and sends the other home.
Both teams may have clinched district titles by the time they meet in the season's final week. Last year's game, scoreless at halftime, capped a perfect season for Wesley Chapel, but a conference crown should be tougher to come by this season.