Here comes the prep football stretch drive — the crux, the plum of any fall.
The next three weeks are stuffed with the all-important district games — so forget the calendar, the playoffs start now.
A glance at the area’s teams.
CLASS 5A-DISTRICT 10 — Forget beating Tampa Plant on ESPN and that convincing win in rural Pennsylvania — if the Hurricanes (1-0 in district play) want a return trip to the Citrus Bowl, these are the games they need to win, beginning tonight at the Ram Bowl. Manatee has been very good on the road the past few years, having not lost a regular-season game away from Hawkins Stadium since Oct. 31, 2008, and will need to lean on that tonight against Riverview and next week when they head to Venice. The Canes have lived up to the expectations thus far, but the next two weeks will decide whether Manatee is toasting its first district title since 2006, advancing as a runner-up or lamenting a missed opportunity.
CLASS 4A-DISTRICT 11 — This four-team district is shaping up just like last season — Punta Gorda Charlotte is the team to beat, Port Charlotte will get beat and Palmetto and Lakewood Ranch will meet in Week 10 for the final playoff spot. The Mustangs, who head to Punta Gorda tonight in a battle of 1-0 teams, won last year’s game against Palmetto when they blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown in the game’s final minute, and we’ll see how it shakes out this year when the teams meet again in East Manatee County. Both the Tigers, who need to win tonight at Pirates Cove, and the Mustangs have persevered through injuries, so despite the small size of the district, whomever gets that final playoff spot will surely have earned it.
CLASS 3A-DISTRICT 10 — Though they struggled against Class 5A powers Manatee and Venice, the Southeast Seminoles are good and will be a hard out for anyone their size. They host Booker (2-0) tonight in what could amount to the district championship game, and Southeast (1-0) comes in having outscored its past two opponents 73-7. Braden River (1-1), which is off tonight, controls its destiny, with two district games left against Booker and Englewood Lemon Bay and has a shot at making the playoffs for the third straight year with a third different coach. After a hot start, Bayshore (0-2) has dropped four straight, including two district games, and needs a lot of help in order to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
CLASS 2B-DISTRICT 5 — Already at 0-2 and at the bottom of the five-team league, Cardinal Mooney not only needs to win out, but needs for either Avon Park or Lake Highland Prep, both of whom are 2-0, to blow out a tire. The Cougars face Tampa Catholic tonight, and though the Crusaders are also winless in the district, they are riding high after upsetting Clearwater Central Catholic last week. In other words, things aren’t getting much easier for the Cougars.
CLASS 1B-DISTRICT 6 — Nothing says fun like a three-way tiebreaker to decide two playoff spots, which we may see after Out-of-Door Academy defeated Bradenton Christian last week. Each team, along with Moore Haven, enters tonight 3-1 in district play and a game back of Fort Myers Evangelical (4-0). If the locals both win tonight — and they should — it all boils down to the next few weeks, when BCS meets Evangelical and Moore Haven, and the Thunder face Moore Haven and Saint Stephen’s. This is the district with the most teams, and consequently, the most intrigue as the season winds down. The Falcons (1-4 in district play) haven’t and won’t quit — but that will not be enough to get them in the playoffs for the first time.
John Lembo, sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2097.