District play begins this week for high school football teams.
But there may not be a more difficult district in the state than Class 4S-District 3 where the five teams are a combined 13-1.
In fact, four of them are ranked top 10 in the state.
Buchholz (2-0) is ranked second in the state in Class 4S by MaxPreps.
The Bobcats, who played in the 7A state semifinals last year, trade Tallahassee schools Chiles and Leon, who had losing records along with Forest (Ocala), for four new district members in 2022.
Bartram Trail (St. Johns), which is 3-0, is ranked fifth in 4S, followed by 3-0 Fleming Island (Orange Park), which is ninth, and 3-0 Creekside (St. Johns), Buchholz’s district opener this Friday which is ranked 10th in the state.
“Last year we outscored our three former district opponents (Forest, Chiles, Leon), 159-20, but this year will be a different story with the loaded district we're competing in,” said Buchholz defensive coordinator Chuck Bell. “It’s a far cry from last season's district where we were the only team to make the playoffs.”
The foursome is also ranked top 15 in the all-classification regional rankings, led by No. 1 Buchholz.
“Our players have accepted the challenge though and are ready to compete for our third district title in the last four seasons,” Bell added. “The emphasis on RPI has decreased the importance of district matchups to some programs, but at Buchholz, winning the district championship is always a major goal of ours.”
Despite losing some talent from last year’s 9-3 team which reached the second round of the 8A state playoffs, the No. 5 Bears return 6-foot-4, 200-pound dual-threat quarterback Riley Trujillo.
The 3-star prospect is the No. 68 overall junior in the state of Florida according to 247Sports.
Teammate Sharif Denson, a Florida commit, is the No. 43 overall senior in Florida and a 4-star cornerback. He was named to the Florida Times-Union Super 11 team.
Bartram Trail, which won at Mainland (Daytona Beach), 17-3, last Friday, will travel to 3S No. 5 Lincoln (Tallahassee) this Thursday night to face the 3-0 Trojans. The Bears won’t open district play until Sept. 30 at home against Fleming Island.
The Golden Eagles, who have outscored their three opponents, 119-41, open the district slate at home against Oakleaf this Friday night.
Fleming Island, which lost to Buchholz in last year’s regional quarterfinals, are led by Florida Times-Union Super 11 tailback Samuel Singleton.
In three seasons, the FSU commit rushed for 2,620 yards with 25 rushing touchdowns on 363 carries. Singleton has 291 yards on 36 carries (8.1 yards per carry) in three games this season.
Oakleaf (Orange Park) is 2-1.
The Knights, who lost to Niceville in the 7A Regional Finals in 2014, returned starting quarterback Drew Ammon, who threw for 1,700 yards last season, and four-year running back Devin Outlaw, who gained 827 yards last year despite being injured. Outlaw has already rushed for 405 yards in three games.
Their leading receiver is Taylor Bradshaw, who had 804 yards receiving as a junior. Bradshaw leads the team with five catches for 98 yards in two games.
Plus, offensive lineman Kyland Armstrong (6’3”, 270) is a Wake Forest commit.
So, there is no easy game in district play this year.
“Each of those teams are extremely well-coached,” said Buchholz coach Mark Whittemore. “Traditions, many of them, of excellence, Bartram Trail and Fleming. Oakleaf and Creekside are a little newer but championship-style programs so it’s going to be really difficult.”
This Friday, Buchholz travels to Creekside in a match-up of top 10 teams.
The visiting Bobcats are 2-0. Their game at Eastside was a no-contest due to weather.
The host Knights have outscored their three opponents, 132-61, including a 21-20 win at 6A Glynn Academy (Brunswick, GA).
“The first thing that always stands out when you prepare for Coach (Sean) McIntyre's Creekside teams is how well they are coached in all three phases of the game,” Bell said. “Offensively though, they do a great job of sticking to what their players do best on a yearly basis. They don't force their players to fit into a specific ‘system’ so from year-to-year Creekside is always evolving schematically which makes them tough to prepare for.”
This season the Knights have leaned heavily on the run game, which Bell said could be a common theme for most teams due to the weather.
Junior Nicholas Williams leads the way with 501 yards on 57 carries with 10 touchdowns. As a team, the Knights average 296 yards per game on the ground.
“Even though they lost one of the best running backs in North Florida to graduation (Preston Strope), they have found a very talented running back to replace him,” Bell said. “This season their starting running back is averaging 167 yards per game and already has 10 TDs in just three games, so we will definitely have our hands full trying to stop him.”
Senior quarterback Wilson Edwards averages 9.1 yards per carry but he also has 221 yards passing with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
“If we can slow down their running attack, we still have to be concerned about their quarterback who has shown the ability to distribute the ball effectively to his receivers and is a very good decision maker whether throwing or running the ball,” Bell said. “Overall, they're an explosive (44 points per game) and really well-rounded team on offense that will force our defense to play a complete game if we hope to have some success.”
The Bobcats close the district schedule with back-to-back games at Bartram Trail (Oct. 21) and vs. Fleming Island (Thursday, Oct. 27).
From top to bottom it’s a tough district.
“I really don't think there is much argument that we are in the toughest Suburban district in the entire state and whoever is fortunate enough to win our district will certainly be a favorite to win the FHSAA 4S state championship in December,” Bell said.