Commentary

Florida teams impress in Week 1

Updated: September 5, 2008, 12:46 PM ET
By Doug Huff | ESPN Rise.com

The last weekend of the summer offered the first chance to see many of the nation's top-ranked high school football teams in action. Two events in particular, the Kirk Herbstreit Ohio vs. USA Challenge and the inaugural Friends of Coal Prep Classic, gave football fans a taste of what to expect this season.

Nationally ranked Florida teams St. Thomas Aquinas (Ft. Lauderdale) and Lakeland impressed in their respective season openers over the weekend at the Herbstreit Challenge.

No. 4 St. Thomas Aquinas, the top-ranked Florida team in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 took home a 35-24 win over Cincinnati Elder in one of four matchups at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, one of two Herbstreit Challenge venues.

Lakeland, meanwhile, accounted for one of three one-sided outcomes at the Friends of Coal event, with a 35-0 rout of Pittsburgh Central Catholic.

St. Thomas Aquinas faced a stiffer test than Lakeland, but the athletic Raiders showed a better passing game with quarterback Ryan Becker converting big plays after a slow start and a 10-0 first quarter deficit. Aquinas took advantage of seven Elder turnovers and kept the Panthers at bay with three TD passes of 59, 18 and 90 yards for a 28-10 cushion in the third quarter.

Lakeland, meanwhile, is working its way back into the national ranking picture it enjoyed from 2004 to 2006 when it won three straight state Class 5A titles, a national FAB 50 crown in 2006 and the major part of a state record 53-game win streak.

The underclass-dominated Dreadnaughts had too many skill players and were too fast for a Pittsburgh Central Catholic team that graduated most of its key players from last season's unbeaten Class 4A state championship team.

With Lakeland and St. Thomas Aquinas in the same Florida class -- Aquinas is the defending champion after finishing runner-up three straight years to Lakeland -- a playoff rematch could be in the making, if the season opening results are any barometer.

After viewing both season-opening teams on the same weekend, I'd give a a slight edge to Aquinas, but the best may be yet to come for the youthful Dreadnaughts.

The Wheeling, W. Va., Friends of Coal Prep Classic, organized by Ken Halloy, met its goal of providing a showcase of high school football talent across the three-game Labor Day event. Halloy served as director of operations in 2005-2006 for the Ohio-based Kirk Herbstreit Ohio vs. USA Challenge, upon which this challenge was based.

Halloy also spearheaded a Sunday night banquet tribute to retired West Virginia University football coach Don Nehlen, a current spokesperson for the Friends of Coal, an arm of the West Virginia Coal Association. Seven other retired college coaches paid tribute to Nehlen in the kickoff event to the Prep Classic, a venture backed by local businesses, organizations and individuals.

The event needs some tweaking, but Halloy had the right idea, if attendance was any indicator, in inviting two defending state champions from nearby Pittsburgh -- Central Catholic and Thomas Jefferson -- plus Ohio contender Cleveland Glenville, Florida powerhouse Lakeland and two local Ohio Valley teams -- Wheeling Central Catholic and Steubenville Catholic Central.

One problem, however, is that the matchups didn't produce the competitive games common for the most part with the Herbstreit event.

The three one-sided outcomes were: Cleveland Glenville 35, Thomas Jefferson 13; Wheeling Central Catholic 33, Steubenville Catholic Central 0 and the lopsided Lakeland 35, Pittsburgh Central Catholic 0 outcome.

In the four Herbstreit games, the widest margin of victory was 11 points in a 35-24 win for ESPN RISE FAB 50 No. 4 St. Thomas Aquinas over Cincinnati Elder.

The other Cincinnati results included two wins for local teams -- Colerain defeated McKeesport (Pa.) 14-7 in overtime, and St. Xavier over Prattville (Alabama), 15-10. The other game at Paul Brown Stadium featured Warren Central (Indianapolis) outlasting Middletown (Ohio), 39-35.

While the outcomes in the Friends of Coal event were lopsided, we were able to make some conclusions from the season openers. Cleveland Glenville flashed its speed and quickness on both sides of the ball in dominating Thomas Jefferson, which capped an unbeaten season in 2007 with a state Class 3A crown.

The Tarblooders, who have won several state track championships but no football brass rings, might be ready to take that title step in the Buckeye State. Glenville mixes the pass and run well and swarms to the ball on defense.

"We don't see speed like that in Pennsylvania," Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said after the game.

At the Herbstreit Challenge, Colerain continued its dominance, keeping its undefeated streak (4-0) alive in the event. The wins have come against tough teams, including McKeesport and Alabama's Hoover.

Defending Ohio Division 1 champion St. Xavier rallied from a halftime deficit to end Prattville's 56-game regular season win streak (during which 143 players has suited up for the program). The two-time defending Alabama Class 6A champion also entered with a 30-game overall streak.

If there was a pecking order of teams seen in the two Labor Day weekend events, it would be: (1) St. Thomas Aquinas, (2) Cleveland Glenville, (3) Lakeland, (4) Colerain and (5) St. Xavier.

The latter two were toss-ups, but you have to give the nod to Colerain since it opened the season with a win over St. Xavier.

Doug Huff is a senior editor of ESPN RISE and is a member of the National Federation Hall of Fame. He has been compiling national and regional rankings in multiple sports since 1987 and is credited as the founder of the national record book.