Every year about this time a special thing happens in communities all over the United States. As fall approaches, the days grow shorter and the temperature gradually begins to dip. Trees lose their lush, green color in place of the brown and yellow drab of hibernation. Maybe more important, to millions of Americans everywhere, football is here.
For the next 16 weeks, communities all over the United States will flock to stadiums to watch their beloved teams. Whether you plan on spending thousands of dollars for season tickets to watch the Atlanta Falcons embark on yet another rebuilding year or you plan to see if the University of Georgia can live up to all the hype, football fans share the same optimism.
Here locally, the football season officially takes its grip tomorrow night at Sharp Stadium. Eastside kicks it off as they welcome Harris County to town for a matchup of 3A teams looking for a fresh start.
Eastside begins 2008 in a new region. The talk throughout the summer has been how the Eagles will respond to the pressure of facing new opponents after dropping down a level. From the outset, the move seems to make perfect sense. Eastside came off its most successful season under Rick Hurst last year, posting an impressive 7-3 record, and the Eagles return several veteran players. Justin Wray comes in as the clear No. 1 quarterback and Broderick Alexander should have yet another solid campaign at running back. But dropping to 8-AAA doesn't guarantee a free ride to the state playoffs, quite the contrary.
"I don't think it's easier by any means," Hurst said. "Our schedule is a tough one and from what little I know about the region, many teams have improved."
Eastside will have its hands full, most notably with Stephens County, a team that hasn't lost a region game in three years.
"Anytime you deal with Stephens County or Hart County, they are always perennial playoff teams," Hurst said. "Those two teams are always there. Until someone beats Stephens in the region, they're going to be the top dog and the one that everyone is gunning for."
Not only have the Indians not lost a region game in three years, since 2003, they have compiled an impressive 29-2 regional record.
"I like our chances," Hurst said about going deep in the postseason. "When we walked in here as coaches four years ago we had the goal of making it to the state playoffs. We have fallen short of that the past two years but I like our chances. I think we have talent to get in, it's all a matter of getting one of those four spots."
Alcovy also looks to roll into unfamiliar territory as they enter Region 8-AAAA in 2008, after spending its first two tears in Region 4-AAAA.
Unlike Eastside, the foes will change, but the classification stays the same. For head coach Kirk Hoffman, that's just fine.
"We've had a great offseason," Hoffman said. "From spring practice to the scrimmage last week we've worked hard on being disciplined. We have a long way to go, but so does every other team out there right now.
"We might not have the experience we've had in the past, but we feel like we have a bunch of kids out there who can play"
In 2007, the Tigers struggled to close out games. Even though Alcovy fought its way to a 2-8 record, the outcome of several games could have been much different.
"We were competitive last year," Hoffman said. "The first year, coming in with a new school, we weren't very competitive. But last year, we won two and going into the fourth quarter with less than two minutes, we were either winning or within tow or three points several times. If we get a couple of breaks, we're looking at a .500 record."
Alcovy's strength could be its defense as the Tigers return several key starters from a year ago. The Tigers will put that defense to the test Friday night in its season opener against county rival Newton who also looks to build off a tough 2008.
Second-year coach Nick Collins has his work cut out for him. It is hard enough for a first year coach to build a winning program overnight. But, asking a coach to do so while losing many returning players is a task even seasoned coaches at the highest level can't perform. Just ask Bobby Petrino. That's exactly what Collins faced last year in his first year as Rams field general.
"We're still trying to figure it out," Collins said of his team during summer practice. "We're going to be very young again, but we're going to be athletic. I think the effects of (Alcovy) opening two years ago are finally hitting us."
Newton struggled to find offensive consistency in 2007, especially at the quarterback position. Demetrius McCray will have a say in just about everything in 2008 as the spot quarterback from a year ago will also take some snaps this year, but more so, will be called upon for his veteran leadership and playmaking abilities on both sides of the ball.
Quinton Pooler, who made several big plays out of the backfield last year, returns to shoulder the work load at running back. But success may ride on McCray's ability to make things happen on offense and special teams. Collins plans to put his veteran leader at kick returner and as Devon Hester has proven in the National Football League as a returner for the Chicago Bears, returning kicks is yet another offensive play.
It all starts tomorrow night. Three sets of fans usher in yet another year of optimism. Everyone has a perfect record. The slate is clean. In less than four months, those fans will know if it was worth the wait. Only time will tell.