The high school football season begins tonight, but a pair of Bridge Bowl rivals already appear to be headed in opposite directions.
Bluffton High School will try to pick up where it left off from last year's record-breaking season, while Hilton Head High is simply trying to pick up the pieces after a controversial week in which it self-reported possible football infractions to the state's governing body for athletics.
The two teams will open the season at Bluffton High School tonight, with kickoff slated for 7:30 p.m.
Hilton Head High reported the possible violation of S.C. High School League rules after two transfer students played in a football scrimmage when they had not yet been declared eligible by the High School League, according to Valerie Truesdale, the Beaufort County School District superintendent. The school has yet to receive a ruling from the SCHSL, principal Amanda O'Nan said.
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A day later, Seahawks coach Tim Singleton said his team has blocked out the potential distraction.
"I'm taking some shots right now that make it appear I'm running a rogue program when I'm not," Singleton said. "Our kids are totally legitimate. ... All our kids are eligible."
The ongoing story places a cloud around a team already viewed as an underdog tonight.
Bluffton outscored the Seahawks 76-0 in last season's pair of matchups. And the Bobcats have shown no signs of slowing down in the preseason -- they return eight offensive starters from a 12-2 season that included a Region 7-AAA championship and a trip to the Class 3-A Lower State title game.
"Right when last season ended, we were anxious for this year to start," Bobcats quarterback C.J. Frazier said. "We knew everybody was coming back. We've been ready."
The Bobcats set the mood for their breakthrough season by opening 2010 with a 39-0 victory at Hilton Head High. The game started a string of eight straight wins to open the season.
"It definitely sets the tone for the season -- no doubt about it," Bobcats coach Ken Cribb said. "... I'm anxious, very anxious. It's been a long wait. I think we're eager to see exactly what we can do."
With new dimensions added to an already potent, record-breaking offense, Cribb is confident his team can open this year in similar fashion. Bluffton has added a new pistol formation to its playbook.
The Seahawks have made significant changes on both sides of the ball, turning to a shotgun offense led by quarterback Michael Julian and a defense that has emphasized better tackling techniques. Both units have new coordinators, with Steve Fuller taking over the offense and former Hilton Head Prep head coach Ron Peduzzi running the defense.
"This year is different; we're a little older, a little wiser and we've got a little more depth," Singleton said. "We'll see where that takes us."
Allendale-Fairfax (5-5 in 2010) at Hilton Head Christian (10-2 in 2010), 7 p.m.
The skinny: Hilton Head Christian isn't exactly easing itself into the practice of facing public schools. The Eagles will take on a public school for the first time in the program's history tonight when they host Class 1-A power Allendale-Fairfax. After winning 10 games in three of the previous four seasons (and seven in the other), the Tigers took a step back last year, going 5-5 and losing in the first round of the Class 1-A playoffs. But Eagles coach Tommy Lewis said the Tigers boast three explosive running backs that will challenge his team's defense.
"We may have bitten off a little more than we can chew," Lewis said. "But we're going to give it our best shot, and I'm confident our guys will play hard and give it their all."
Players to watch: The Eagles go into the opener unsettled on a starting quarterback to replace three-year starter Luke Sirgo, so expect to see sophomore Brad Meccariello and freshman Caleb Lewis sharing time. ... Kyle Weaver, a two-way starter on the line for Hilton Head Christian, has given a verbal commitment to play at The Citadel next season. ... Tigers LB/DB Ronald Geohaghan (6-0, 185) has committed to Clemson. Rivals.com ranks Geohaghan as the No. 3 recruit in the state for the 2012 class.
Key to the game: With two inexperienced quarterbacks, the Eagles' offense is likely to take some time to begin clicking. So the defense needs to be up to the task of stopping Allendale-Fairfax's running game and making it a low-scoring affair.
Whale Branch (5-6 in 2010) at Baptist Hill (6-5 in 2010), 7:30 p.m.
The skinny: Whale Branch hits the road for its second season, ready to build off an inaugural campaign during which it earned a playoff berth. The Warriors won last year's meeting with the Bobcats, 26-14, en route to a 3-0 start to the season. The Bobcats, who lost in the first round of the Class 1-A playoffs, return 18 starters, according to The Post and Courier.
Players to watch: Whale Branch quarterback Brandon Morton was a welcome addition when he transferred into the area before the season. With senior Stedmon James out indefinitely with an injured knee, Morton will be asked to manage the game and protect the football. ... Baptist Hill quarterback Shaquiell Mitchell completed 10 of 16 passes for 80 yards when the teams met last year. He's back as the Bobcats' starter.
Key to the game: Whale Branch coach Rob D'Amato and his staff emphasized the importance of the weight room in the offseason, with the goal to become more physical and wrap up on defense. Baptist Hill might not be as big as some of the region opponents the Warriors face later in the season, but D'Amato's squad will need to show it can bring down the ball carrier.