Officially, the schedule says Week 4. But for most Citrus County teams, this is opening night.
Today a most unusual season kicks off for Gulf Coast 8 conference schools, though COVID-19 has already forced Springstead into quarantine, postponing tonight’s game at Lecanto and next week’s at Crystal River.
For the rest, it’ll be trial by fire with no spring or preseason to build up to this point. But football is back, a reality that wasn’t always certain the past few months.
Weeki Wachee at Citrus, 7 p.m.
Though the Hurricanes are coming off a 9-1 regular season and a playoff appearance in 2019, numerous personnel changes make this team a curiosity.
This won’t be the debut of McKinley Franklin as head coach, since he held the post on an interim basis the final two games last year. But it’ll be the first game with his own system in place.
"We’re excited. The kids are biting at the bit," Franklin said. "They’ve been working hard since summer conditioning started, then we finally got the go that we were playing football this year. All that hard work they’ve put in, they get to play a game now.
"I think the kids are mentally ready to go. We’ve just got to fine tune stuff and see what it looks like."
Of course the Hornets are in the same boat, playing their first game of the season. They were 3-7 a year ago and have lost four straight to Citrus, being outscored 182-51. However, last season ended with two straight wins after Weeki Wachee scored a combined 48 points over its first eight contests.
"Weeki Wachee is not a bad football team. They’ve got a good running back (senior Kenny Davis) coming back," Franklin said. "From the film I’ve seen, they do a lot of different things. They give you a single wing look. They try to run the ball at you. We’ve got to be ready for it."
It also won’t be a typical Game 1 atmosphere, with the Citrus Bowl being limited to 25% capacity.
"We have to create our own atmosphere," Franklin said. "We’re not going to have the crowd to help. We’ve got to bring our own energy. It’s got to all come from within.
"It’s going to be different, that’s all I can say. The atmosphere will be what it is. It doesn’t take away from coaching but it takes away from playing a little bit."
For Citrus, junior safety Nick Freier will be out with a bruised ankle.
Crystal River at Hernando, 7:30 p.m.
It’ll be a quick return before an unexpected week off for the Pirates, so they’ll try to make the most of a visit to a long-time rival.
"Who knows if we’re actually ready, but we’re ready to get on the field," Crystal River head coach Cliff Lohrey said. "We’re in no different position than any team across the state of Florida. No excuses. But we’re working on things we’d normally work out in the spring.
"You can’t take anything for granted. There’s no guarantee we’re going to play a full slate of a condensed schedule. This is an opportunity to play, compete and play for each other."
Uncertainty is also something the Pirates can feel about their opponent. Hernando has a new head coach in Earl Garcia III and since there’s no film to exchange there isn’t much scouting to be done.
"It’s a good challenge to see who is technically sound coaching-wise," Lohrey said.
It will be interesting to see how the Leopards (5-5 in 2019) utilize their new running back, senior Contae Cason. Playing for Central last year, Cason ran for 1,758 yards and 21 touchdowns.
"He’s a good football player," Lohrey said. "The guys at Crystal River High School are not built for backing down. It’s an opportunity for us to compete against an excellent player and show we have excellent players, as well."
Bishop McLaughlin at Seven Rivers Christian, 7:30 p.m.
This isn’t the first game of the season for the Warriors, but it might feel that way. They lost to Trinity Christian Academy back in Week 1, 14-2.
Then the entire school was shifted to virtual learning for two weeks due to COVID-19 positives among the faculty, forcing the postponement of the last two games.
"We’re just glad to be back out there," Seven Rivers head coach Monty Vann said. "The last two weeks the players took it on their own shoulders and held their own practices and did their own stuff.
"We looked pretty good this week. That part is good. It tells us who the leaders are and who wants to play."
That opening loss was tough to gauge, since several players were unavailable as the school dealt with an outbreak amongst its junior class. So this definitely has the feel of a new beginning.
"It’s a reboot," Vann said. "It is kind of frustrating from a coaching standpoint."
Bishop McLaughlin (2-0) is another Sunshine State Athletic Conference team, but is in a different division based on a larger enrollment. Vann said he enjoys playing the bigger schools early in the season, likening it to eating vegetables to start a meal.
"They’re pretty athletic," Vann said. "They’ve got a couple dudes that run well. They’re big up front like any other team. We need to stop their quarterback, Adrian Miller. If we stop and contain him, we’ll do fine. I think offensively we can move the ball on them."
Right guard Byron Cole, safety/running back Carmelo Cordero, lineman Kamryn Johnson and defensive end Cole Richardson are all out this week for Seven Rivers.