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Opening weekend of high school football season features several compelling matchups
From rivalry games to big challenges for smaller schools, Week 1 offers plenty of excitement
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West Hall's TK Hendrix (32) stops Gainesville wide receiver Andy Hayes (10) during a 2016 game at Spartan Field. - photo by Time file photo

After toiling through padded practices in the heat for the last few weeks, most area high school football teams are jumping right into the fire to begin the regular season.

That’s evident on Friday night’s schedule, which features a few cross-county contests and big-time challenges for schools in lower classifications. While these matchups have no bearing on region standings and playoff berths, coaches discover plenty about their players during season openers.

“I want to see them compete,” said West Hall High coach Tony Lotti, whose team faces Gainesville High this week. “ ... I know it’s a tough opener, but sometimes you learn lessons the hard way. You have to raise your game and compete when you play great programs.”

Even with an ever-shortening preseason due to GHSA rules, players will surely be ready to stage some thrilling contests Friday night. Here are the headlining games from what should be an exciting Week 1.

GAINESVILLE VS. WEST HALL

Following vastly different seasons in 2016, the Red Elephants and Spartans are both hoping to set the tone for this year in the second annual Marvin Orenstein Kickoff Classic.

Lotti’s squad hopes to build on matching its deepest playoff run with a second-round appearance in the Class 4A playoffs, while Gainesville looks to rebound from its first losing season under 16th-year coach Bruce Miller.

Still, the Spartans know they’re in for a struggle with the Class 6A Red Elephants.

“They’re big, physical, fast, athletic and well-coached — not all the traits you want to see in an opponent,” Lotti said with a laugh. “Then you throw in their tradition on top of that.”

Junior quarterback Tre’ Luttrell will be making his first appearance for Gainesville after last year’s starter DJ Irons moved to Grayson High. The Red Elephants hope the dual-threat quarterback brings the offense a little more spark than it had in last season’s game against West Hall, a 20-10 victory.

The Spartans, meanwhile, will have youth all over the field when the two teams clash at 7:30 p.m. Friday at City Park Stadium in Gainesville.

“A lot of people will be in new roles Friday night, and we’ll find out how they do,” Lotti said. “I’m really curious about how they respond and how the leadership responds when we hit adversity. We know it’s coming.”

CHESTATEE VS. NORTH HALL

As if the excitement of finally starting the season wasn’t enough, the Trojans and War Eagles will get 2017 underway with a rivalry game.

“Because of the proximity … both teams get up to play each other,” North Hall High coach David Bishop said.

The contest slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday at War Eagles Stadium in Gainesville will also be one of conflicting styles — Chestatee High is based out of the spread, while the Trojans go run-heavy in their Wing-T offense.

War Eagles coach Shaun Conley has raved about the progress of senior quarterback Storm Yarbrough, who has classmate Nick Lyles to rely upon in the running game. The duo will be instrumental in Chestatee building on its surprising playoff appearance and 4-7 record last year.

North Hall, on the other hand, is breaking in David Seavey at quarterback and searching for a workhorse back after the graduation of 1,600-yard rusher Kyle Bacus. The Trojans’ rushing attack against the War Eagles’ brand-new defensive line will be a critical matchup.

EAST HALL VS. HABERSHAM CENTRAL

For the second straight year, East Hall High is opening the season against the highest-classified opponent it has ever faced.

That’s just how Vikings coach Bryan Gray likes it, even after starting last season with a 45-13 loss to Habersham Central

“You always want to start with a challenge,” he said. “The kids have something to look forward to, and a talented school exposes things you need to fix quicker. If you desire to play in the playoffs, you’ll have to play big programs like this to get ready for your region.”

Class 3A East Hall is certainly eyeing a return to the postseason after missing out last year. With 2016 Times’ Player of the Year Austin Parker quarterbacking the Vikings’ spread offense and 15 starters back from last season’s 3-7 campaign, such expectations are reasonable.

But East Hall will finally have a better measuring stick for this year’s outlook when it takes the field against the Raiders at 7:30 p.m. Friday at East Hall Stadium in Gainesville.

“The kids are excited and fighting anxiety,” Gray said. “We’ve been going at each other for so long … Now we’re looking forward to going out there and finding out where we are.”

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