The Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka junior/senior high school football teams start the 2014 regular football season on similar footing.
Both are coming off kickoff classic wins, which in their respective ways were impressive, and they will begin the new season facing each other, as they have in recent years.
The Tiger Sharks host the Gators 7:30 p.m. ET Friday at Shark Field in a renewal of the county rivalry.
Wewahitchka comes in off a 31-0 drubbing of visiting Franklin County in a Kickoff Classic last Friday as Rashard Ranie averaged over 12 yards a carry on 10 carries to pace a balanced Gator attack.
“We played pretty well,” said first-year Gator coach Loren Tillman. “We got a lot of kids in to play. From where we were in the spring we are pleased.”
While Ranie led the team, Tillman noted that several other skill players – in particular Brett Setterich and Caleb Shiver – stood out.
“We had a lot of kids get in there and if we can establish enough other than Rashard to keep teams honest that will benefit us,” Tillman said. “We are still a young team, but we are playing at game speed and that is good.
“The kids have come to understand the team concept we are teaching, that what is best is what gives the team the best opportunity. I am pleased with our progress. Friday was step in that direction.”
A step preceded by a fruitful summer.
“Physically we just looked different from the spring,” Tillman said. “Leaner, thicker, faster, I think that comes from the kids learning the system, buying into what we are trying to do and working hard running and lifting during the summer.”
The Tiger Sharks had a tougher time in their 20-19 victory, but the score was less important than the opponent – visiting Blountstown, which reached the Class 1A title game last year.
In addition, how the Tiger Sharks won was a boost.
With the varsity exclusively on the field in the first half, the Tiger Sharks carved out a 20-2 lead and a goal-line stand in the final minutes sealed the win.
“It was great to get a win. I thought the kids played hard. And it should be boost in confidence that it was the state runner-up,” said Port St. Joe coach John Palmer, returning to the Tiger Shark sideline after spending six years in Hernando. “But we have got a lot of room to improve.
“Our technique was not really good in spots and we had some turnover issues. We also had some early penalties we have to clean up. We have a lot of work to do and things we need to focus on correcting.”
Port St. Joe enters the game fairly healthy. Chad Quinn, who had suffered heat-related issues that kept him off the practice field for several weeks will be back and the Tiger Sharks escaped Blountstown without injury.
The Tiger Sharks have good numbers out for football this season and return 11 starters from last year.
“Hopefully we will be ready Friday night,” Palmer said.
The Gator team Port St. Joe faces, he said, was far different than the one the Tiger Sharks dominated at the end of spring practice.
Of particular concern, Palmer said, was a distinct size advantage in the trenches.
“They are very big on the lines,” Palmer said. “A great test for us will be to be able to stop them on offense. Offensively, they come up with ways to move the ball behind that big line.
“They are playing really good on defense right now. It will be a challenge for us to be able to move the ball.”
For the Gators, Tillman said, the key will be playing intelligently and keeping the Tiger Shark offense in front of them, cutting off long plays.
The Gators are nursing a few bumps and bruises, Tillman said, and he must be cognizant with those players that next week brings crucial district game.
Both coaches agreed the turnover battle would also be crucial.
“We’ve got to play good smart football,” Tillman said. “We need to get first downs and don’t turn the ball over. As long as we are picking up first downs it will end in the end zone.
“We also have to limit big plays. We have to keep their offense in front of us.”
Centennial Bank will sponsor a Clash of the County tailgate party prior to Friday’s game. The event is free and all fans are invited. The party will be 5-6:30 p.m. ET adjacent to Shark Stadium in Port St. Joe. Hot dogs, chips and drinks will be provided.