For the majority of the calendar year, high school football eludes the national spotlight. It's glossed over by the endless cycle of media coverage. It avoids the booster-induced scandals and threats of conference realignment that plague its college counterpart. For the most part, teams train in relative anonymity, quietly preparing for their chance to make headlines.
That time is now. Thousands of schools kickoff their seasons this weekend, beginning a frenzied, action-packed, three-month stretch until the state playoffs. It can seem overwhelming. It's also exhilarating.
Earlier in the week, SI.com unveiled its preseason Top 25, a list of teams likely to contend for the national title. Today, it unveils its storylines to watch. And there's certainly no shortage of good ones.
When most fans think of high school football, they tend to envision the endless plains of Central Texas or the muggy heat of South Florida. They imagine hard-nosed coaches, overworked players and crazed fans. In many ways, they dream up Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, a town living vicariously through its 17- and 18-year-old athletes.
In recent years, however, some of the best prep teams have hailed from vastly different locales. Bishop Gorman, 40-4 since 2008, is from Las Vegas. Chaparral, the two-time defending Arizona 5A champion, is from Scottsdale, Ariz. Warren Central, potentially the nation's most talented team, is from Indianapolis. Consider them high school versions of Boise State, Utah and TCU.
All seek admittance into the prep football pantheon in 2011, and in many respects, they've earned it. They'll also have additional chances to prove their worth. Bishop Gorman plays Chaparral on Aug. 20 and hosts Armwood (Seffner, Fla.), another top five team, just days later on Aug. 26.
One saga ends and another begins. Just days after the conclusion of Bubba Starling's drawn-out decision -- he signed with the Kansas City Royals instead of playing football at Nebraska -- attention turns to Jameis Winston, another two-sport star facing a similar dilemma. A five-star quarterback, Winston is a natural leader who threw for 2,334 and 17 touchdowns and ran for another 870 and nine scores during his breakout junior year at Hueytown (Ala.). He shined at various summer showcases and committed to Jimbo Fisher's resurgent Florida State team in August. At a glance, he appears destined for SEC stardom.
The problem is, he's equally gifted at baseball. Winston registered a 8-3 record, 92 strikeouts, a .424 batting average and seven home runs as a pitcher and outfielder in 2010, leading the Golden Gophers to 33-9 record. Come next June, he'll likely be a first-round selection in the MLB amateur draft.
As with Starling, uncertainty reigns supreme, and Winston's senior efforts in both sports should factor into his ultimate decision. Here's a safe bet: Fans and media will hang on his every word.
With thousands of games occurring across the nation every weekend, high school teams can have a difficult time separating from the pack. Competition between states is rarely even, and discerning the best from the rest is a grueling procedure. Naming a true national champion is nearly impossible. The BCS seems flawless in comparison.
This year, that task becomes a little easier. Thanks to a schedule packed with intriguing interstate showdowns, there are de facto tiebreakers in place between several of the nation's top teams. Here are ten of the most anticipated matchups, many of which should factor into the national title discussion.
• Aug. 26: Armwood (Fla.) at Bishop Gorman (Nev.)
• Aug 27: St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) at Prattville (Ala.)
• Aug 28: Cocoa (Fla.) at Colerain (Ohio)
• Sept. 2: Manatee (Fla.) at Our Lady of Good Counsel (Md.)
• Sept. 9: Allen (Texas) at Longview (Texas)
• Sept. 10: Mission Viejo (Calif.) at Don Bosco Prep (N.J.)
• Sept. 10: South Panola (Miss.) at Hoover (Ala.)
• Sept. 16: Trinity (Ky.) at St. Xavier (Ohio)
• Sept. 23: De La Salle (Calif.) at St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.)
• Oct. 8: Don Bosco Prep (N.J.) vs. St. Edward (Ohio)
247Sports: Which H.S. game will be most anticipated?
Commonly ranked behind Aledo's (Texas) Johnathan Gray and Millbrook's (N.C.) Keith Marshall, Hopewell's (Aliquippa, Pa.) Rushel Shell may be the most prolific running back among 2012 graduating seniors. His breakaway speed (he runs a 4.45 40) and terrific durability (323 carries as a junior) have wowed Division-I scouts, eliciting offers from Alabama, Auburn and Ohio State, among others.
Most impressive are his statistics. Through 2010, Shell rushed for a seemingly unfathomable 6,551 yards and 77 touchdowns, absurd numbers for a third-year back. He's just 1,095 yards shy of the WPIAL record (7,646 by Fort Cherry's Mike Vernillo) and 2,476 shy of the alltime Pennsylvania state mark (9,027 by Steelton-Highspire's Jeremiah Young). He could eclipse those totals by season's end.
A bold prediction? Look for Shell to snap the latter mark Oct. 28 against West Allegheny (Pa.). It's Hopewell's regular season finale, and on the same date last year, Shell burned the Indians for 193 yards and three touchdowns.
Dorial Green-Beckham may be the best story in the class of 2012, both on and off the field. Between the sidelines, he's a beast of a receiver, a 6-5, 220-pound man-child who can seemingly do it all. He already owns Missouri state records for receiving yards (4,120) and touchdowns (51) -- 1,706 and 15 coming in 2010 -- and could put up even bigger numbers as quarterback Matt Futrell matures. He's mesmerizing, drawing comparisons to Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones.
His story away from football is more remarkable. Green-Beckham overcame a childhood marred by an alcoholic mother, a nonexistent father (he's never met his biological dad) and multiple makeshift living arrangements. He struggled through foster care, often having to fend for himself. He eventually found refuge with future Hillcrest (Mo.) coach John Beckham, who officially adopted Dorial, and younger brother Darnell, on Dec. 30, 2009.
This year constitutes the final chapter in Green-Beckham's incredible high school narrative, one that's seen him progress from athletically-gifted unknown to Springfield-area role model. Expect him to continue to inspire -- and dominate.
If being the son of former NFL Pro Bowler Fred Taylor didn't warrant enough attention, Kelvin Taylor took his publicity to another level this spring: He created a personal Android smartphone app. Now, fans can follow his every move, monitoring the junior through his various recruiting updates, highlight reel plays and statistical exploits.
The decision does have roots. Taylor is a unanimous five-star recruit and has done nothing but slice through opposing defenses since enrolling at Glades Day (Belle Glade, Fla.). He accumulated 2,463 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns as a sophomore, an encore from his 213-yard, four touchdown performance in the Florida 1B championship in 2009. Come next fall, he'll likely receive attention as one of the BCS's most-coveted prospects. He's a bona fide prep playmaker.
More than anything, however, the move embodies the current self-promotional state of sports -- even at the high school level. If successful, it could spur a trend beyond the Facebook and Twitter antics that fans have become accustomed to, offering even more unfiltered access to athletes' thoughts and whims.
Recruiting. Now there's an app for that.
High school football loses two of its alltime great coaches in St. Thomas Aquinas's (Fla.) George Smith and DeMatha's (Md.) Bill McGregor, both who retired at last season's end. Legends in the prep circuit, both leave legacies that won't soon be forgotten.
Smith was 361-66 during his 34-year tenure, claiming six state and two national titles. He sent hundreds of players to Division-I schools, and several, including former Dallas Cowboys' wideout Michael Irvin, to the NFL. He also went out with a bang: The Raiders were 59-2 during his final four years on the sidelines, winning three 5A championships.
McGregor achieved similar success in his 29-year stint, going 280-39-3 with 17 conference titles. He coached running back Brian Westbrook and cornerback Josh Wilson, among others, and is largely responsible for the Stags' reputation as a D.C. area juggernaut.
Even in their absences, both teams face lofty expectations in 2011. St. Thomas Aquinas and DeMatha went a combined 23-3 last year, leaving Rocco Casullo and Elijah Brooks -- the team's new respective head coaches -- with giant shoes to fill.
A typical high school season features off-field recruiting drama as enthralling as on-field action, and this year should be no exception. The majority of the nation's top players have yet to declare, triggering an outpouring of speculation, rumors and debate about where each recruit will land. Though many won't commit until National Signing Day (Feb. 1), Texas and Florida State are off to the strongest starts.
More interesting, however, might be the case of St. Edward (Ohio) offensive tackle Kyle Kalis. The 6-5, 302-pounder bolted from Ohio State to Michigan in July, switching commitments after former coach Jim Tressel's resignation. Though it's just one player, could it be a harbinger of things to come?
Few stories are as played out in sports as a son following in his father's footsteps. It's been chronicled on countless occasions, from the Mannings to the Griffeys to the Earnhardts. The dynamic seems surprisingly fresh, however, when the father is Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders.
Twenty-three years after hoisting the Heisman at Oklahoma State, Sanders's son is running wild in the Sooner State. The Heritage Hall (Oklahoma City, Okla.) standout resembles his elder in many ways, possessing the sturdy frame (5-9, 180), explosive speed and one-step acceleration that once gained his father unprecedented success. His numbers are also impressive: 81 carries, 1,136 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior in 2010.
Perhaps best of all, Sanders Jr. has shown glimpses of his father's trademark elusiveness, the stunning cutbacks and sideline scampers that once dominated NFL defenses. As this clip from the 2008 2A Finals makes clear -- with Sanders Jr. splitting two defenders and hurdling another -- this could be the rare father-son remake that never gets old.
Mentioned in this week's magazine and the preseason Top 25, Don Bosco is brimming with talent. The Ironmen are overwhelming favorites, led by a sparkling senior class and a head coach, Greg Toal, who might be the best in the nation. It bears repeating: Their defense has a chance to be historically good.
Three blue-chippers (defensive tackle Darius Hamilton, cornerback Yuri Wright and safety Elijah Shumate) team with three under-the-radar stars (cornerback Jabrill Peppers, defensive end Mike Strizak and defensive end Alquadin Muhammad) for a unit that should surrender next to nothing. They gave up just nine touchdowns all of last season. They could best that total this year.
Before the team's practice on Aug. 9, Muhammad summed it up best. "We don't wanna give up eight points," he said, referencing the 8.1 points per game the Ironmen allowed in 2010. "We wanna come out and just blow teams out with the wind."