Halfway Point… Now the Real Fun Begins

by Mike Ridaught

We’ve reached the halfway point of the high school football district season, and now the real fun begins. That’s because postseason berths are on the line. The month of October offers some key games with district implications. While some district races might go right down to the wire, other fates will likely be determined before we even get to November. Here are five district games in the Gainesville and Ocala area to keep your eyes on in the next three weeks.

Keystone Heights at Bradford (Starke) – Friday, October 12

Not only is this a neighboring county rival, but it’s also a playoff game of sorts for the home team. The Tornadoes were crushed by South Sumter (Bushnell) last week, 41-0. They can’t afford to drop to 0-2 in district play because the visiting Indians (3-0 in the district) would have the inside track with South Sumter for the two playoff spots. The Raiders, ranked second in the state in Class 4A and fourth in the Prep Zone Power Poll, have to travel to Keystone Heights (#18 PZ Power Poll) on October 26. If the Indians take care of business tonight, and at home against Mount Dora on November 2, then they can afford a loss to the mighty Raiders and make the playoffs. But if Bradford wins out, they will control their playoff destiny.

Vanguard at Gainesville (6A-District 5) – Friday, October 19

The Purple Hurricanes have a stout defense which allowed minus-68 yards rushing in a Week #3 win against 3A power Trinity Catholic (Ocala) in mid-September. But the ‘Canes, who received their first-ever No. 1 ranking in football last month, also turned the ball over four times and were flagged 19 times for 190 yards in that game. On the other hand, the ‘Canes seem to have righted the ship, outscoring their last two opponents, 96-7. That’s good news for GHS fans, because Vanguard is a team that they can’t afford to make mistakes against. Not only is the game likely for the district championship, but the ‘Canes lost at Vanguard last year. So GHS has had this one circled on the calendar since last year. It will be a good test for Gainesville, which will go to Boot Hill the following week to try and avenge their only other 2011 loss to Madison County. Expect the winner of this one to win the district, while the loser gets in as the runners-up.

Eastside at Crystal River (5A-District 5) – Friday, October 19

Crystal River turned some heads early when they got off to a 4-0 start, but the Pirates were crushed at reigning district champion North Marion, 44-3, last Friday. This game becomes a must-win game for Crystal River. Dunnellon (1-1 in the district) is still in the mix too after defeating Santa Fe (Alachua). The Rams (2-0 in the district) have made improvement, but so have the Pirates. The margin for error will become smaller for Eastside with a loss because the Rams also have to go on the road to North Marion (Oct. 25). However, a win on the road will likely put the Rams in the postseason for the first time since 2008 because they have already beaten Dunnellon and they have Santa Fe (11/2) at home. On the other hand, if Crystal River wins the game, they control their own destiny for the playoffs because they could win out and get in. The Pirates host Dunnellon on Oct. 26 and end their district slate at Belleview on Nov. 2.

Forest at Buchholz (7A-District 1) – Thursday, October 25

Which Buchholz team will show up? Will it be the Bobcats’ team that went on the road to surprise Class 8A Orange Park? Or will it be the team that was crushed at home by Columbia (Lake City) in mid-September? They were also blown out last week against Lincoln (Tallahassee), ranked fifth in Class 7A. The Trojans will win this district, but the runner-up spot is wide open still as Chiles (Tallahassee), Forest, West Port (Ocala) and the Bobcats all have one district loss. This is a must-win game for both teams. Despite their struggles (both teams have lost three of their last four games), the Wildcats and Bobcats still have a chance to make the playoffs. If Buchholz wins at Chiles next Friday, then they will control their own destiny for the postseason. Forest might need some help.

Eastside at North Marion (5A-District 5) – Thursday, October 25

North Marion showed its grit early when the ‘Colts bounced back from an early season loss to county rival Vanguard in Week #2 to hand Class 7A Forest (Ocala) its first loss of the season. Then, against unbeaten Crystal River, the Colts flexed their muscle with a dominating 44-3 win. While the final score was a bit shocking, in a way, it’s not surprising. North Marion has dominated district play since Craig Damon began coaching his alma mater in 2000. They have made the playoffs every year under Damon, including nine consecutive district titles. Eastside is improved, but a date in Sparr will be a good measuring stick to see if the Rams are back. If Eastside beats Crystal River next Friday, then this will be for the district championship.