For most of the teams in the area, Week 4 of the regular season means the first district contests of the season.
While the FHSAA has significantly altered the format for determining its playoff teams, one constant has remained: district champions automatically move on to the postseason. So with the stakes raised, the season takes on a whole new feel.
Hernando at Crystal River, 7 p.m.
Two of the three 2018 playoffs teams in the District 5A-8 face at Earl Bramlett Stadium, but both enter at 1-2.
Crystal River is looking to pick itself up off the mat after a 37-0 loss at Dunnellon on Saturday, the second time the Pirates have been shut out already.
“We always talk openly and honestly within our program,” Crystal River head coach Cliff Lohrey said. “The start we’ve gotten off to isn’t the start we want. Our goal every Monday is to go 1-0 that week. That doesn’t change if things go our way the previous game or if they don’t go our way.
“Our philosophy is to treat all opponents with respect and equality of preparation. But our players are not naïve. They know district play impacts our postseason. I think our guys want to rebound from their performance against Dunnellon.”
Hernando got off to a 0-2 start, but the Leopards faced Lake Gibson (lost 41-0) and Eau Gallie (lost 13-7), two teams who are both currently unbeaten. They got in the win column by thumping Lake Weir last Saturday, 51-0.
So far Hernando has exhibited a balanced run game, with five different players having rushed for 100 yards on the season and six running for at least one touchdown. Conversely, the Leopards have only thrown for 11 yards over those first three games and have more interceptions (two) than completions (one).
“It’s a typical Hernando team in terms of great speed and athleticism,” Lohrey said. “They attack you on defense, they’re well-coached and they have a heavy run emphasis.”
Indeed, the Pirates have struggled mightily on offense despite a 46-0 win over Lecanto in Week 2 — though all but two touchdowns in that game came from defense and special teams. Crystal River has compiled just 329 yards of total offense thus far.
“For us, we’ve got to continue to grow in terms of minimizing our mistakes,” Lohrey said. “I think our focus needs to be on getting a rhythm established on the offensive side of the ball.”
Dunnellon at Vanguard, 7:30 p.m.
After just two practices last week due to Hurricane Dorian-related school closures in Marion County, Dunnellon (3-0) had no trouble handling the rival Pirates.
To this point the Tigers have been unaffected by various weather-related adversity that has thrown their routine out of whack, having outscored their first three opponents by a combined 112-18.
Still, to actually have a full, uninterrupted week of practice without having to reschedule a game is a refreshing change of pace.
“It’s been great. It’s just being able to get back to some normalcy,” Dunnellon head coach Price Harris said. “For us it’s huge, it’s a district week. All district games matter. We’d like to start off on the right foot. We just happen to draw the No. 2 team in the state.”
The Knights are the second-ranked squad in 5A according to both MaxPreps.com and FloridaHSFootbll.com, behind only Northwestern in Miami. The Associated Press has them fourth, with Dunnellon receiving one vote in the 5A poll. The Tigers are 10th in the FloridaHSFootball.com rankings.
Vanguard has a pair of four-star recruits at wide receiver in senior Leonard Manuel and junior Trevonte Rucker, both of whom initially committed to Florida although Rucker has since de-committed.
There’s also senior offensive lineman Antonio Smith, committed to Miami, and junior Bryce Langston, one of the nation’s highest-ranked defensive ends who also de-committed to Florida earlier this year. Senior running back Dewayne McBride will likely sign with a Division I school in the coming months.
Oh, and Vanguard hasn’t lost in the regular season since 2016, including a 2-0 start to this campaign. So there’s that.
“Across the board they’ve got talent. They won a lot of games the last few years,” Harris said. “Now it’s the meat of our schedule. We’ve got to continue to play at a high level.
“This will tell us right off the bat, if we can play with them we can play in 5A. If we can’t, it’ll be a long season. This will tell us where we’re at, what we need to work on and where exactly we need to go.”
Dunnellon will be without middle linebacker Avery Braden, who is one the team’s leading tacklers. He rolled his ankle in practice on Monday.
Lecanto at Central, 7 p.m.
After two blowout losses to start the season, Lecanto shed the winless label last week with a 7-6 victory over Weeki Wachee.
The Panthers, who had yielded a combined 90 points to their first two opponents, pitched a shutout defensively against the Hornets, who only scored on a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.
“It was a better weekend, that’s for sure,” Lecanto head coach Greg Harper said. “But there’s a long season ahead of us. Winning one game is not the goal. We’re back to work this week, hoping to get win No. 2.”
This isn’t a district game, although it’d be easy to believe it was since Central was a district rival for the Panthers the past four seasons. These aren’t the same struggling Bears, though, at 3-0. Junior Contae Cason has already rushed for 715 yards and scored 17 touchdowns.
“They’ve got a lot of speed. They’ve been making a lot of people miss,” Harper said. “Defensively we have to find a way to slow (Cason) down and keep their offense off the field.
“They’ve got big kids up front on both sides of the ball. They’ve got more experience than last year. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Sophomore Luke Malmberg, one of the county’s top rushers early in the season, is questionable for the Panthers with an ankle sprain.
Citrus at Weeki Wachee, 7:30 p.m.
Out of the gate at 3-0 and coming off a 68-point showing, Citrus rolls into district action against a Weeki Wachee squad that’s 0-3 and yet to score an offensive point.
“We don’t overlook anybody. We think anybody can beat anybody and we’re banking on that fact this year. We want to beat somebody people don’t think we can beat,” Citrus head coach Robert O’Brien said. “We practice as hard as we can, play as hard as we can and do our best to go 1-0 every week.
“We definitely don’t feel bad about ourselves, but we understand there’s a lot of getting better to do. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. We feel we can get better and improve, and our leadership can take us there.”
While the Hornets have yet to find the end zone on offense, they’ve also given up just 35 points over their first three games.
“They run the ball well, play physical defense,” O’Brien said. “They’ve made some mistakes in games that I think they can fix and when they do fix those things they’re a good football team.
“They’re hungry for a win. They’re at home, they’re desperate and they’re hungry. That’s a tough team to beat.”
Seven Rivers Christian at First Academy-Leesburg, 7 p.m.
Seven Rivers may not play in a district as an independent, but tonight’s matchup with First Academy-Leesburg is within the Sunshine State Athletic Conference FCS North Division.
The Warriors (0-2, 0-1 North) are shorthanded. Junior Brock Weed, who has 11 catches for 169 yards and four receiving touchdowns along with a team-best 297 all-purpose yards, and also has 14 tackles and an interception, will sit out with a concussion.
Senior Killian Woodside is also out with a medical condition, leaving Seven Rivers with just 14 available players. Still, the Warriors face an opponent in the Eagles (0-1, 0-0 North) who are in a similar situation.
“We move guys around, get them ready, have a good week of practice,” Seven Rivers head coach Monty Vann said. “We’ll take some plays out and do plays we think the guys can do.
“They’re (the Eagles) athletic and fast. We’ve got to contain their speed. I think we can do well against them. Their numbers are low, as well.”