MANATEE -- When area football programs begin their games on Friday night, most will be facing just another regular-season opponent that has no bearing on whether or not they make the postseason.
Then there are the three private schools in the smaller Class 2A (urban) that start the season within a season, also known as the district slate.
Bradenton Christian, the Out-of-Door Academy and Saint Stephen’s face league foes weeks ahead of local public schools and the other area private program, Cardinal Mooney, which is in a four-team district in the bigger Class 3A.
“Most of the larger schools are in these small districts, where they’ve taken all the smaller schools and clumped altogether to make these bigger districts, which makes it tougher to prepare week-in and week-out,” BCS head coach Allan Gerber said.
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How you fare against district competition determines your playoff fate.
BCS has come close the past two seasons, but a new league might change the Panthers fate.
ODA is trying to keep its postseason streak intact. The Thunder have advanced to the playoffs three consecutive years.
And Saint Stephen’s will look to give first-year head coach Tod Creneti his first victory. Unlike league foe ODA and rival BCS, the Falcons have already begun their district schedule.
Saint Stephen’s traveled to Naples Saint John Neumann and lost 35-14 to start 0-1 in league play for the third straight season.
ODA squares off against Community School of Naples.
Both the Falcons and Thunder have home games, with the former hosting at Palma Sola Park.
Meanwhile, the Panthers travel to St. Petersburg Northside Christian.
All three start the year with a must-win scenario, despite the larger number of teams in both Class 2A (urban)-District 5 and Class 2A (urban)-District 6 -- the two leagues BCS, ODA and Saint Stephen’s compete in. The Falcons need a victory even more, since they’re already a game behind after their opening week loss.
“It’s a nine-week playoff. You just can’t lose,” Gerber said. “... A district this size, you have a plus or minus of one. You can lose one time, and have a chance. You lose twice, then you’re putting your own future into somebody else’s hands. And that’s a helpless feeling. Been there, done that.”
In the smaller districts like Class 7A-District 10 that features Braden River and Manatee, there are only four teams competing for two spots. So if you fall behind early, then making up ground is pretty difficult.
But Gerber said that in the smaller classes, there’s a disparity between the top and the bottom.
ODA head coach Brett Timmons isn’t a newcomer to the postseason. All he’s done is led the Thunder to the playoffs three straight years and was a part of back-to-back state title teams at Southeast during the mid-1990s.
In the old days, only teams that captured the district crown progressed to the postseason and when Timmons was polishing off a prep career that landed him a college career at Tulane, where the Green Wave went unbeaten in 1998, the postseason expanded to included district runner-ups.
“Say you have a 10-game schedule, and let’s say they have a four-team district,” Timmons said. “They could lose all six out-of-conference stuff, but win all four of the district games and go to the playoffs. And be a 4-6 team in the playoffs, but they won the game that mattered ... in our deal, it’s more or less like you really can’t lose a game. If you lose a game, it puts you behind the eight-ball. You have to stay consistently winning. You’ve got to keep constantly bringing your ‘A’ game. If not, like I said before, your dreams of going to the postseason and getting a ticket to the dance may not happen.”
So while there are intriguing matchups throughout the area on Friday night, it’s the three games involving BCS, ODA and Saint Stephen’s that carry the most importance.
Because a loss could quell any thought of making a deep December run.
On the other hand, a victory keeps the momentum going that much longer.
Or in the Falcons’ case, a victory turns the tide in the season-long grind, while a loss puts them closer to elimination from playoff contention.