With college football still a week away from its opening slate of games, high school action took center stage last Friday and Saturday. It didn't disappoint. Many familiar faces, including Alabama's Prattville, Florida's St. Thomas Aquinas and Mississippi's South Panola, engaged in high-powered out-of-state matchups, setting the table for what should be a thrilling 2011.
It also forged an early season trend: Unpredictability could be the new norm.
Take St. Thomas Aquinas, for example. Entering 2011, the Raiders underwent a complete overhaul. Legendary coach George Smith retired after 34 successful seasons. Starting quarterback Jake Rudock graduated and went to Iowa. Many other prominent producers, including wideout Rashad Greene and cornerback Marcus Roberson, also moved on, leaving the defending national champions reeling. A powerhouse that won 56 of 58 games seemed startlingly out of sorts.
Not anymore. Following a 34-31 victory over Alabama's Prattville High at Hoover (Ala.), Aquinas has reasserted itself as a national power.
"We fight to the very end," new coach Rocco Casullo told the Miami Herald after the game. "We said if we could keep it close in the fourth quarter we got a chance and that's exactly what we did."
Meet the new-look Raiders. The 34-year-old Casullo mans the sidelines, carrying a swagger that resembles his predecessor's. Senior Max Lescano serves as a worthy replacement for Rudock under center as he threw for two touchdowns and rushed for two more. The running back platoon of Dami Ayoola and Fred Coppet appeared relentless, combining for 145 yards in the win. In the face of transition, Aquinas seems as dangerous as ever.
The game played out much like fans would expect from a clash of two prep titans. Prattville scored after a blocked punt to take an early 7-0 lead. Aquinas bounced back with 21 unanswered points in the second quarter. After a third-quarter interception from Prattville quarterback Justin Thomas -- he lofted a pass directly to Raider defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. who returned it 61 yards to the 1 -- Aquinas cemented the victory with a Jelani Hamilton sack on fourth-and-five with 1:17 remaining.
The drama was thrilling. But the takeaway was this: The Raiders aren't rebuilding. They're reloaded. And they've climbed back into the top three of the power rankings and the national title discussion.
Trinity (Texas), Trinity (Ky.) and Harrison (Mich.) also ascended, while Bishop Gorman (Nev.) slipped after a heartbreaking loss to Armwood (Fla.). And keep an eye on Mallard Creek (N.C.). The upstart Mavericks are poised to enter the rankings after back-to-back statement victories.
Unpredictable? Maybe. But parity should make for an even more exciting season.
Previous rank: 1
First game: Sept. 10 vs. Mission Viejo (Calif.)
Another week of inactivity spells another week of anticipation for the Ironmen, who continue to prepare for their Sept. 10 opener against Mission Viejo. Don Bosco lurks as a defensive force spearheaded by four U.S. Army All-Americans. Any of them will tell you: It's championship or bust.
Their first test won't be easy. Mission Viejo went 13-1 last season, losing only to Servite (Calif.) in the CIF Pac-5 Finals. The Diablos also boast a loaded offense with USC-bound running back Jahleel Pinner and quarterback Alex Bridgford (2,417 passing yards, 23 touchdowns in 2010), and should benefit from a tune-up against Bakersfield Centennial (Calif.) the week before.
Previous rank: 2
First game: Sept. 2 vs. Bellarmine Prep (San Jose)
Different team, same story. De La Salle didn't play for the second consecutive week, as quarterback Bart Houston and Co. enter game week training for their Sept. 2 showdown with Bellarmine Prep. As with Don Bosco, their first challenger is formidable: Bellarmine returns the quarterback-receiver tandem of Sefo Liufau and Michael Rector, a pair that connected for 1,078 yards and 11 scores in 2010.
It's worth noting that while De La Salle's offense made most of the preseason headlines, its defense may be equally potent. Linebacker Michael Barton has already committed to Cal, and counterpart Michael Hutchings may be the hardest-hitting junior in the nation.
SIMMONS: Hutchings among first five-star recruits in the class of 2013
Previous rank: 7
Last game: 34-31 win over Prattville
Next game: Sept. 9 vs. Cypress Bay (Weston, Fla.)
Rocco Casullo's group delivered the most convincing performance of any team last weekend, dismissing any doubts that a new quarterback or head coach will disrupt the Raiders' winning ways. Next week's opponent could be easier. Aquinas drubbed Cypress Bay (Fla.) 60-14 during their only meeting last November.
Previous rank: 3
Last game: 20-17 win at Bishop Gorman
Next game: Sept. 2 at Brandon (Fla.)
Friday's victory at Bishop Gorman (Nev.) was a tale of two halves: The first Armwood dominated, the second it was similarly outmatched. It left fans exhilarated, exhausted and confused. It also poses the question: Which half was more representative of the Hawks' full season potential?
First, the good. Armwood exploded out of the gate behind a high-octane offense and lockdown defense. Backup running back Wade Edwards rushed for two touchdowns, serving as a workable replacement for injured Florida-bound tailback Matt Jones, and the defense was largely suffocating early, limiting running back Shaquille Powell and Co. to just three points in the first 30 minutes.
Problem is, none of that momentum carried into the second half. Leading 20-3 with five minutes left in the third, the Hawks watched their lead dissipate to 20-17 with 2:53 remaining in the fourth. Requiring just one first down to secure the win, the Darryl Richardson-led attack ran a mere 53 seconds off the clock, leaving doubts about the team's closing instincts. Armwood only survived when Gaels' kicker Kline Fielden missed a 40-yard field goal wide left as time expired.
The bottom line is that coach Sean Callahan's crew won, defeating an opponent with championship-caliber talent. But they also showed they have plenty of room for improvement. When they do, watch out.
Previous rank: 5
Last game: 28-13 win over Cedar Hill (Texas)
Next game: Sept. 2 vs. Northwest (Justin, Texas)
The Eagles victory over Cedar Hill offered a glimpse of Allen's offensive potential. Alabama-bound quarterback Alec Morris completed 18 of 29 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns, and wideout Oliver Pierce racked up 126 yards and two scores. They flourished in spite of limited production from senior running back Jonathan Williams. Their defense was even more impressive. The Eagles limited the Longhorns to just 255 yards and two total touchdowns. That's no easy feat: Cedar Hill averaged 38.9 points per game during its 8-4 campaign in 2010.
Previous rank: 8
Last game: 30-7 win over Tyler Lee (Texas)
Next game: Sept. 2 vs. Abilene (Texas)
The Trojans galloped for 241 rushing yards in its season-opening victory over Tyler Lee, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt. It's more remarkable how they did it. Eight Trinity players carried the ball during the game, led by Kailahi Kautai's 53 yards.
Previous rank: 10
Last game: 43-7 win over Cass Tech (Detroit)
Next game: Sept. 1 at Southfield (Mich.)
Billed as matchup of two of Michigan's best, Saturday's showdown between Harrison and Cass Tech quickly became a one-sided rout. Harrison cruised 43-7, winning in a manner that sent a message to the rest of the state.
The Hawks led 29-0 at the half. They outgained the Technicians 378 yards to 138. That level of domination, coupled with an entirely in-state schedule, could add up to another Top 10 finish and Michigan Division 2 title for legendary coach John Herrington.
Previous rank: 13
Last game: 66-21 win over Montgomery Bell Academy (Nashville)
Next game: Sept. 9 at Elder (Cincinnati)
As with Indianapolis' Warren Central, Trinity has been criticized for playing weak in-state competition. That perception changed following consecutive wins against top-tier opponents from Tennessee. The Shamrocks rolled both Brentwood Academy and Montgomery Bell Academy (10-3 and 9-3, respectively in 2010), outscoring the duo a combined 111-28.
Give credit to quarterback Travis Wright. He completed 16 of 17 passes for 336 yards and five touchdowns in the latter victory. His two game numbers now read: 28 of 35, 534 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Those are Peyton Manning-like numbers.
Previous rank: 14
Last game: 34-6 win over North Shore (Houston)
Next game: Sept. 2 at Alief Taylor (Houston)
Often overlooked behind Allen and Trinity in the Texas hierarchy, Katy has a chance to be the best of the bunch. The Tigers lost only to Pearland, the eventual state 5A champs, in 2010 and return quarterback Brooks Haack, a 6-2 signal-caller with a Texas-sized arm. Their defense is also stifling: In the first half against North Shore, they surrendered just 38 yards and three first downs.
Previous rank: 4
Last game: 34-31 loss to St. Thomas Aquinas
Next game: Sept. 2 vs. Stanhope Elmore (Millbrook, Ala.)
A nationally televised loss to St. Thomas Aquinas is disappointing, especially given its location in nearby Hoover, Ala. But the Lions showed signs of promise. Alabama commit quarterback Justin Thomas rushed for 156 yards -- shining except for his costly third quarter interception -- and Jalen Whitlow and Stanley Mays each ran for touchdowns. Expect a rebound starting Sept. 2.
Next five: Mallard Creek (Charlotte), Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas), Dwyer (West Palm Beach, Fla.), Warren Central (Indianapolis), Pleasant Grove (Elk Grove, Calif.)
• The most shocking result of the weekend came in Stephenville, Texas,where the hometown Raiders defeated Aledo (Texas) 48-47. Stephenville's victory ends the Bearcats' 30-game winning streak and sends shockwaves through the Texas 4A circuit, where Aledo was widely considered the favorite. Don't blame five-star rusher Johnathan Gray for the loss. He raced for 229 yards and four touchdowns. He was just matched by Stephenville's Aiavion Edwards, who rushed for 222 yards in the upset.
• Bishop Gorman, despite falling out of the Top 10, showed impressive grit in defeat. Trailing 20-3 with five minutes in the third, the Gaels roared back behind touchdowns from tailback Shaquille Powell and quarterback Jarrett Solomon, losing only when a 40-yard field goal sailed wide left as time expired. National titles hopes may be dashed, but a consensus Nevada title isn't.
• Dorial Green-Beckham could put up even bigger numbers than his eye-popping 1,706-yard, 15 touchdown campaign in 2010. The 6-5, 220-pounder was breathtaking in his senior debut, hauling in 18 catches for 284 yards and three touchdowns. He never ceases to amaze.
• Don't sleep on Georgia's Buford High. The Wolves have won their first two games 42-0 and 49-0, respectively, and seem even better than the squad that went 13-1 in 2010.
• Mallard Creek enters the Top 15 after its second consecutive sparkling performance, a 52-21 rout of Sun Valley (N.C.). With a similar result against Mooresville (N.C.) on Sept. 16, the Mavericks could solidify their standing as a dark horse for the national crown.
• Score another one for Hoover (Ala.) coach Josh Niblett. He's done nothing but impress since taking over for lightning rod Rush Propst, and earned one of his biggest wins to date with a 24-13 victory over Mississippi's South Panola. His defense was dominant: The Tigers were held scoreless in the first half.
• Just two weeks into the season, Arizona's Chaparral is all but irrelevant. A week after their 42-22 beatdown by Bishop Gorman, the Firebirds appeared unremarkable again in a 22-21 win at Salpointe Catholic (Tucson, Ariz.). They'll have to play much better to make a run at a third consecutive Arizona 5A crown.