The path to the playoffs begins now.
On one side, Bluffton High School will be hoping to get back.
On the other, Battery Creek High School begins a mission to return after a heavy first-round defeat.
But groundwork must be laid, and that begins Friday night at Bluffton when the Bobcats and Dolphins meet for the first time since 2011. That year, a powerful Bobcats squad rolled to an 82-0 win, but that was then, and this is now.
For Bluffton, opening night means a chance to set last year's shortcomings right, to erase the memories of close calls and see if a new crop of players can reach old heights. Coach Ken Cribb doesn't think his squad will have any trouble getting up for the game.
"I don't think you've got to do anything," Cribb said of motivating the team. "If they don't get fired up for that first kickoff, there's something wrong with them."
While there may be nothing wrong from a motivational standpoint, Cribb said Bluffton is dealing with a few injury concerns, most notably on the offensive line. The fifth-year coach said everyone else is almost at full speed, with the exception of dynamic playmaker and breakout candidate Terrance Heyward.
Heyward is continuing to work his way back from a torn MCL and ACL, but Cribb already sees great progress and said he expects his wide-out to be at full strength sooner rather than later.
"He's getting better every day," Cribb said.
The matchup will be the first test case in a new district directive to have all area teams play each other. Cribb said he expects a great atmosphere and a good game against a team he says is stocked with "great athletes." He expects the Dolphins to run some zone read and find ways to get receiver Eric Freeman and running back Tyrone Dilbert the ball.
Battery Creek coach Jim Shuman said he hopes the Dolphins' improved depth helps as they open a tough non-region schedule. He has been especially encouraged by the numbers on the offensive and defensive lines, which will be tested Friday.
Senior offensive linemen Michael Reyes and Seth Priester earn the task of trying to slow Bobcats defensive end Shameik Blackshear.
"Blackshear's definitely the kind of kid you've got to scheme for," Shuman said. "He's an outstanding player. We're definitely going to emphasize getting as many bodies on him as we can."
Battery Creek schedule a scrimmage with Berkeley last week to prepare for Bluffton's up-tempo offense. The Stags run a fast-paced attack, and Shuman said the scrimmage was part of a long-term plan to make sure the Dolphins are as prepared as possible.
"We know we're going to have kids who may not be as fast," Shuman said. "Obviously they have some great size up front. We feel like if our kids do what we ask them to do, regardless of size, we'll be OK."
FRIDAY'S OTHER GAMES
Ridgeland-Hardeeville at Hilton Head Island, 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: Hilton Head Island 47, Ridgeland-Hardeeville 6 (2013)
The skinny: Opening night has been a traditional tripping point for the Seahawks, who won their opener for the first time in their last 14 tries in 2013. Coach B.J. Payne will be looking to make it a two-year streak this time around against the new-look Jaguars and first-year coach Jahmaal Nelson.
Players to watch: The Jaguars have suffered significant losses to Hilton Head Island in each of the last two years. If they want to hang closer, QB/RB Gavin Bush and LB Craven Howard will need to be at their best. Bush is dangerous if he finds a crease, and Howard is a terror in the middle of the field. For Hilton Head Island, all eyes are on QB Aidan Hegarty as he returns to the field after injuries kept him out of the spotlight in 2013.
Keys to the game: Hilton Head High will have to find a way to deal with the triple-option look the Jaguars will debut under Nelson. It's a system that can wreak havoc on defenses, and this is a rare occasion where the Seahawks' experienced secondary won't be as influential. For the Jaguars, they will need to hold onto the ball. With downfield threats like Aaron Frazier and Tyler Hamilton on the other side, Ridgeland-Hardeeville needs to score early and control the pace of play. Depth puts the Jaguars at a disadvantage, but success on the ground could mitigate that.
Hilton Head Christian Academy at Trinity-Byrnes, 7:30 p.m.
The skinny: The Eagles will take to the road for their season opener, with coach Ryan Mitch looking to find a winning formula after starting 2013 0-2. HHCA hasn't faced Trinity-Byrnes (Darlington) at all in the last decade, so this is not a familiar opponent, even within SCISAA. This might be an advantage, though, because the Eagles are breaking in a new spread offense and finding personnel to fit different places on the field. Mitch's roster is just over 20 right now, so depth could be a big issue.
Players to watch: It all starts at quarterback. Ryan Barrett takes over as the latest senior signal-caller, and does so with an arm that Mitch believes has shown a lot of promise this preseason. In the final scrimmage, Barrett went 11-16 with just one INT and a pair of drops. Chris Edwards is filling in at running back and has been outstanding as a linebacker in scrimmages.
Keys to the game: Balance. Last season's state finalist team did its work almost exclusively out of the diamond formation, churning up rushing yards. Mitch has maintained that his offense must find more of a balance. Barrett is the key to making that happen. If an experienced offensive line plays up to potential, that could help speed the learning process along and keep the Eagles healthy.