Days are shorter, the air cooler, baseball labor negotiations are heating up and politicians are running more ads.
It can only mean one thing -- high school football. Four area teams open Thursday with the rest of the area teams beginning Friday.
The highlight matchup is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at John Davies Athletic Field in Crosby where the Crosby-Ironton Rangers host the Aitkin Gobblers for the fourth time in the resurrected rivalry.
The teams split the first two meetings before C-I sneaked past the Gobblers last year 20-14. The Rangers won with a recovered fumble in the end zone after a bobbled punt.
Both teams have new starting casts. The Rangers have 19 different starters while Aitkin sports four new defensive starters and six on offense.
In an eight-week schedule every game is important, but for both teams this game is crucial -- already.
"We have the Stump Trophy and if you lose that thing at home in the first week, it's really detrimental with your momentum heading into the second week," C-I coach Craig Johnson said.
Playing a team's biggest rival the first week causes some anxiety for coaches and players.
"Plus, we're both section (7, Class 3A) foes so that will help us playoff-wise for either team with the seedings later in the year," said Aitkin coach Mark Mehr. "It's a pretty big game. The only thing it doesn't count for is our conference standings.
"It's just Aitkin and Crosby. That's all I need to tell people."
The deciding factor in last year's Ranger victory was special teams. It's no coincidence both teams have stressed this often overlooked element.
"We feel that's how we won the game last year," said Johnson. "Especially early in the season that part of the game often gets neglected as teams try to get in their offense and defense."
For Aitkin it had a few fluke plays that decided games. They didn't stress special teams any more than usual.
"Those things could have been an offensive play or a defensive play," Mehr said. "Early in the season, special teams really become a big issue as well as penalties and protecting the ball."
With the number of new faces on both squads, Johnson is hoping senior captain Paul Bushard steps up his game.
Bushard started at defensive end and tight end for the Rangers last year. His leadership and experience are key, as will be the play of Nate Bjerga, who replaces three-year starter Ben Baratto at quarterback.
"Nate will have his share of butterflies but he will have to exude some confidence," Johnson said. "The other guys will need to feel confident that he is going to lead them."
For Aitkin, senior Jacob Mehr is the leader. The returning quarterback must keep his teammates' emotions in check. He'll have help from running backs John Swanson and Josh Setzer.
"We've got a pretty green offensive line, but they're all guys who have had to wait a year to play," said Mehr. "They've worked together quite a bit in the past.
"We really have good team chemistry. We also have good guys in the backfield who are really showing good leadership. They both played a lot for us last year but not in the running back position."
Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus also start their seasons at 7 p.m. Thursday. Both teams are home. PR-B hosts Park Rapids, which it has beaten five straight times, and the Patriots hosts Braham.
Class 1A state runner-up Pillager looks to get off to another quick start as it travels to Browerville 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Other home games Friday feature Staples-Motley vs. Dassel-Cokato, Wadena-Deer Creek vs. Albany and Verndale vs. Ashby.
Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus get their first taste of Mid-State Conference volleyball tonight.
Pequot Lakes hosts a rebuilding Wadena-Deer Creek Wolverines team. PR-B hosts talented Michelle Honek and the Staples-Motley Cardinals. Both games start at 7:30 p.m.
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