It's finally here.
The first high school football Friday night of the year.
When I was in high school, I went to the games and pulled for my team as much as the next guy, but I don't think I took high school football seriously until I spent 13 years in the Upstate.
I left the Beaufort Gazette in October of 1998 for the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg.
Over the next 13 seasons, the area schools there combined to win 19 state championships. You could say I was spoiled, but I knew how special the football was.
When I came back to Beaufort County in January, I knew that football here was a lot better as a whole than it was when I left.
But I can't say I expected there to be as many good story lines as there are out there as the season opens tonight. The Bluffton Bobcats, a game away from perfection and a Class 3-A state championship last season, lose a ton of players from last year's juggernaut and don't even get another shot at the crown. Instead, they take a step up and have to prove they can do it in 4-A.
And Mark Clifford and the Beaufort High Eagles are hoping to come across the river and show the Bobcats, their new region rivals, the ropes. In a little less than seven months, B.J. Payne has taken over a mess at Hilton Head Island High, grabbed the attention of a team in disarray and pointed the Seahawks in the right direction. But the biggest question remains: How soon can he have them winning on the field? Thomas Heyward Academy is coming off a long-awaited return to the SCISAA playoffs and the seniors who keyed the Rebels' revival would like to take the next step and win a state championship.
But before the Rebels can think about the state championship, they have to think about the Region 2-AA crown. Because last year's state champions reside just a 30-minute drive down U.S. 278 at Hilton Head Christian Academy. And it's safe to say the Eagles, who have won three of the last six state titles, aren't eager for their mini-dynasty to end.
Never fear, though. These two can decide it on the field Oct. 12 at Hilton Head Christian. How about Ridgeland-Hardeeville? Before July, that school didn't exist.
When the Jaguars opened practice at 12:01 a.m. on July 27, it was the first time the players from the two schools had practiced together. A week from tonight, coach Blake Raley will have them playing their first game in Class 2-A.
The Jaguars will be region mates of Battery Creek, which drops from 3-A to 2-A and hopes to improve on its one-win season of a year ago. Whale Branch and first-year head coach Jerry Hatcher look to run the team's playoff streak to three years in a row while turning the speedy Warriors into a more physical squad.
If you like high school football, it's a good time to be in the Lowcountry.