One month from now, teams will have already played their Kickoff Classics and Week 1 games.
Teams’ identities, strengths and flaws will all be starting to take shape. The coming weeks will help set the tone for the season to come, beginning as teams officially open the fall season with non-contact practices Monday. Then, it’s all eyes toward the ‘next game,’ for the next 12 weeks, more if you’re lucky.
There are, by our count, at least a dozen games on the schedule that you don’t want to miss in our area this season.
Even though several of our area teams have great Kickoff Classic matchups — Venice hosts the national IMG Academy team, Port Charlotte plays at Dunbar, Lemon Bay at South Fort Myers — only the regular season games count, so those are the only games we’re examining for this list.
Here are what look to be like the best games the 2022 season has to offer:
Miami Northwestern at Venice
Week 1 — Friday, Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
It’s hard to find a better Week 1 matchup than this.
The Miami Northwestern has built a reputation as one of the most formidable teams in the state, year after year.
The Bulls, who have claimed eight state championships and one national title, have sent 37 players to the NFL — including seven active players (Teddy Bridgewater, Tutu Atwell, Artie Burns, Lavonte David, Rachad Wildgoose and Deandre Baker).
This past season, Northwestern bounced back from a Kickoff Classic loss to Venice to record a strong season, finishing 10-4 as it was eliminated in the 6A state semifinal by Jesuit.
This year, the Bulls feature another class of standouts, including 3-star running back Jamari Ford, 3-star quarterback Taron Dickens, 3-star defensive end Toddrick Brewton and 3-star cornerback Nazir Ward.
Even with all these stars, though, it won’t be easy for the Bulls to get their vengeance this time around as Venice has reloaded for another run of its own.
Charlotte at Port Charlotte
Week 2 — Friday, Sept. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Forget stars, forget college commitments, forget the rankings. Throw it all out the window.
There’s no better football atmosphere than any time the Charlotte and Port Charlotte teams meet for their annual Peace River Rivalry showdown on the gridiron.
The Tarpons have dominated the series over the 40 regular season meetings with a 35-5 record, but the Pirates have won three of those contests under current coach Jordan Ingman.
Despite the Pirates’ recent turnaround in the rivalry, the script has become all-too-familiar — with the Tarpons coming from behind to win six of the past seven contests.
There’s plenty of storylines heading into this year’s meeting that should make it special.
First-year coach Cory Mentzer will have his initial turn as a head coach in the rivalry, leading a group that features many familiar faces from last season’s team — including standout starters Connor Trim, Brayan Augustin, Cael Newton, Brendan Chavarria, Kris McNealy and Brady Hall.
Port Charlotte, which led 10-7 entering the fourth quarter last season, should be in an even better position to win this time around. The Pirates were sloppy and inexperienced with over a dozen new underclassmen starters and just a few rain-free practices under their belts.
Now, those players — such as Edd Guerrier, Jamal Streeter Jr., Samuel Clerjuste, Eric Bell, and others — are well-seasoned juniors who have never seen the Pirates beat the Tarpons during their time in high school.
St. Frances Academy at Venice
Week 4 — Thursday, Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
The only other time these two teams met (Oct. 4, 2019), St. Frances pulled away for a 49-7 blowout win.
Even if history repeats itself, there’s still plenty of reasons to tune into this matchup beyond the final score.
For starters, just about everyone can come watch this game as it’s slated for a rare Thursday night. If that’s not enticing enough, the game will also be broadcast on ESPN2, and it will feature some of the best players in the nation.
Two of those players will be Indians – Damon Wilson II and Elliot Washington II.
Opposing them will be 4-star offensive tackle Cam’Ron Warren, 3-star offensive tackle Mike Williams, 3-star defensive tackle Nasir Pearce, 3-star defensive end Donovan Dyson, 3-star running back Durell Robinson, Boston College commit and defensive end Brian Simms III, and ’25 cornerback Blake Woodby (offered by Alabama, Georgia, etc.), among others.
North Fort Myers at Lemon Bay
Week 4 — Friday, Sept. 16 at 7:30 p.m.
Following three straight years of regional playoff losses, Lemon Bay has beefed up its schedule for the 2022 season.
A Week 4 matchup against North Fort Myers is a prime example of just how much more exciting the schedule is this year.
The Red Knights went just 5-5 and were ranked as the No. 227 team in the state, but would have been far-and-away the Mantas’ toughest regular season opponent last season. This year, North Fort Myers is Lemon Bay’s third-strongest opponent entering the season — behind a pair of foes it will face on the road later in the season – Carrollwood Day and First Baptist Academy.
The Red Knights should give Lemon Bay’s defense a good warmup test.
North Fort Myers returns its main quarterback from last season — dual-threat weapon Levontai “Bo” Summersett — along with last year’s lead running back, Andre Devine, the team’s No. 1 receiver in Santino Arroyo and ball-hawking linebacker Dominic Rendon.
Though Lemon Bay also has several impressive returners, like quarterback Trey Rutan, running back/defensive end Landon Spanninger and defensive tackle Gabe Dickerson, beating the Red Knights won’t be easy.
Charlotte at Fort Myers
Week 5 — Friday, Sept. 23 at 7 p.m.
The Tarpons-Pirates rivalry may be the best-known in the area, but the Tarpons and Green Wave have a much longer and more storied rivalry.
It looks like another exciting chapter will be added this season.
Fort Myers (5-4) and Charlotte had nearly identical seasons last year, as each under-performed and were eliminated in the first round of the regional playoffs. When they met, it was a defensive battle that Fort Myers led, 10-0, at halftime as it held on for a 16-14 win.
Though both sides have lost some impact players to graduation, this game could prove to be a difference-maker for both district seeding and making the regional playoffs.
Seminole at Venice High
Week 5 — Friday, Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m.
If not for a one-point, overtime loss to Apopka, it might have been Seminole (Sanford) who Venice faced in last year’s 8A state final.
Last year’s Seminoles team went 11-2, losing only to Chaminade-Madonna (also on this list) and the Blue Darters.
Several key playmakers are expected back.
Some of those top players include: 3-star wide receiver and FSU commit Darren “Goldie” Lawrence, 3-star quarterback and FAU commit Luke Rucker and 2025 safety Ethan Pritchard (offers from FSU, Iowa State, Miami, etc.).
That high-octane passing attack with Rucker and Lawrence should be a good matchup for a Venice defense with Washington II, a 4-star talent, at cornerback and Wilson II, a 5-star defensive end.
Braden River at Port Charlotte
Week 6 — Friday, Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m.
Braden River and Port Charlotte are familiar with each other, but this game won’t be exciting because of history, rivalry or tradition.
These two bands of Pirates are likely the clear-cut favorites to win a district that also contains Southeast (5-3 in ’21) and Parrish Community (3-5 in ’21).
If Southeast loses to both of these schools again this year, and Parrish turns in another losing season, that makes this game the default district championship.
Aside from a 29-21 Port Charlotte win on Oct. 25, 2019, there’s little shared history between these two teams. Though another matchup was scheduled for the following year, an outbreak of the coronavirus at Braden River cancelled the game, and it was never made up.
This past season, Braden River finished 9-2 as it lost to just Sumner in the regular season and then in its regional playoff opener to Jesuit, the eventual 6A state champion.
Bell-cow back Trayvon Pinder, No. 1 receive Craivontae Koonce and top tacklers Aidan Dangler and Tanner Wolfe have returned to lead what should be a formidable Braden River team.
DeSoto County at Lemon Bay High
Week 6 — Friday, Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m.
This local matchup could wind up being one of our area’s best rivalries in the coming years.
These two run-first teams each rode their formulas to winning seasons last year, and although the Mantas won, 36-0, in last year,’s meeting, expect this year’s game to be closer.
Now in the same district, this game will mean more than just bragging rights, too, as the only other two teams in the district — Booker and Bayshore — don’t pose much of a threat. Expect the winner of this matchup to take the district crown.
Though each side lost some key seniors — Nazir Gilchrist, Michael Russ and Blas Cervantes for DeSoto County and Jason Hogan, Aaron Pasick and Everett Baker for Lemon Bay — there are more than enough returners on both sides for this game to be competitive.
Chaminade-Madonna at Venice High
Week 7 — Friday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m.
The gauntlet continues for Venice as the Indians host last year’s Florida 3A state champs to open October.
The Lions aren’t just good for 3A competition; they’re good against just about any team they play. Last season, Chaminade-Madonna played a brutally tough schedule and nearly came out unscathed, going 12-1 as it lost to only American Heritage (Plantation), 26-24, in Week 2. Some of its signature wins came against Western (Davie), Columbus (Miami), Buford (Georgia), Seminole (Sanford), Gulliver Prep (Miami), Lakewood (St. Pete) and Berkeley Prep (Tampa).
The Lions are set to return an impressive amount of stars, too, including: 5-star receiver Jeremiah Smith, 5-star safety Zaquan Patterson, 4-star quarterback Cedrick Bailey, 4-star running back Davion Gause, 3-star receiver Edwin Joseph, 3-star defensive lineman Wayne Peart, 3-star OL Deandre Duffus, 3-star OL William Larkins, 3-star OL Elvin Harris and 2025 cornerback Chris Ewald (offers from FSU, Georgia, Indiana, etc.).
Somehow, though, this might not be Venice’s toughest test of the season — with matchups against national powerhouses like IMG Academy (Kickoff Classic on Aug. 19) and St. Frances Academy.
Charlotte at Lehigh
Week 8 — Friday, Oct. 14, 7 p.m.
Not only is this likely to be a closely contested game, but it will feature one of the top players in the country, too.
Lehigh rising-senior running back Richard Young is ranked as a 5-star player and a consensus top-10 player in the state of Florida. Last season, he carried the ball 196 times for 1,755 yards (9 yards per carry) and scored 19 touchdowns in 10 games played.
With Young back along with a host of impact players on defense, the Lightning could be even better than last year’s 7-3 campaign, which featured a 14-7 win against Charlotte.
This game should be a perfect pre-playoff test for Charlotte both on offense — against an experienced, athletic and stout defense — and on defense against one of the best rushers anyone will see.
Hardee at DeSoto County
Week 11 — Friday, Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
The state’s oldest rivalry has taken a couple of interesting turns over the past two years.
In 2020, the Wildcats put an exclamation mark on the end of the Bulldogs’ winless season, stomping them in a 62-0 onslaught that went down as the most lopsided game in the rivalry’s history.
One year later, the Bulldogs rebounded under new coach/athletic director Sam Holland for a winning season, capping it with a 14-8 win at Hardee.
With DeSoto County back in FHSAA competition, a win in this year’s game — against a quality opponent — could not only boost the Bulldogs’ confidence, but their playoff hopes, too.
Coming off a 4-6 season, Hardee is returning starting quarterback Kellon Lindsay, running back Edner Cherry, and No. 1 and No. 2 receivers Josh Porter and Rolant Simon, respectively, along with a few standout underclassmen on defense.
North Port at Lemon Bay
Week 11 — Friday, Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
The Bobcats are playing a much lighter, and independent, schedule this season as they try to rebuild their program.
This game could serve as a fun measuring stick for their progress — with some local bragging rights on the line, too.
The Mantas have owned the series as of late, winning the past two contests by a combined score of 63-0 — including a 35-0 win on Oct. 30, 2020 that caused North Port to quit on its season.
Anything better than a shutout should give the Bobcats reason to believe they’re moving in the right direction.