August 2, 2012 Updated: July 3, 2013 at 9:32 am
School hasn't started, pads haven't been checked out and the first practice is more than a week away, but the showdown of the area's top football program will be here in less than a month.
On Aug. 30, the night the regular season kicks off in earnest, Pine Creek will travel to Fountain-Fort Carson.
"It's a Thursday night, so we're the first game out the door," Eagles coach Todd Miller said. "It's a heck of a way to open the season."
The game was scheduled this early out of necessity. Pine Creek begins its league season in Week 4 against Vista Ridge, so it had only the first three weeks to fill -- and all three were filled with 5A teams that won at least one playoff game last year.
The Trojans are first, followed by home games against last year's 5A runner-up Lakewood and the defending 5A champion Columbine.
"I don't think you'll find a tougher schedule in 4A," said Miller, whose team finished second in 4A last year to Valor Christian, which has since moved to 5A. "I think it's probably because of our success we’ve been able to pick up these games. Those are games that three or four years ago we never could have gotten. They want challenges and want to prove to the rest of the state that last year wasn’t a fluke."
Fountain-Fort Carson, which broke through with its first 5A playoff victory last year, also faces an early gantlet with the Eagles -- to whom the Trojans have dropped the past four meetings by the combined score of 79-9 -- followed by Columbine and Rock Canyon, a 4A playoff team that has since moved up to 5A and returns running back Eric Williams after he ran for 2,115 yards and scored 34 touchdowns as a junior.
Fountain-Fort Carson coach Mitch Johnson has little flexibility with his scheduling as the Trojans are located farther south than any other 5A squad and he struggles to convince Denver-area teams to travel so far. In addition to the tough start, the Trojans face Valor Christian on Sept. 28.
"Lou Holtz once said these are the kinds of schedules that make us coaches act like babies," Johnson said. "We're up every two hours at night crying."
The front-loaded schedules -- particularly with area bragging rights riding on the opener -- figure to bring an extra sense of urgency to both schools. And given the talent that both teams lost to graduation, the timing couldn't be worse.
Pine Creek has no returning offensive starters and just three on defense. However, the three defensive returners are studs -- NCAA Division-I recruit defensive tackle Dalton Fields (he's narrowed his choices to Wyoming and Colorado State), linebacker Chase Stevens and linebacker Hayden Cortez. Besides that, the Eagles routinely give their second and third teams plenty of reps as they've won 17 games by at least 30 points over the past two seasons.
Miller said four quarterbacks remain in a battle to replace Ryan Warner, who is now a professional baseball player, and the team lost its top five rushers and all five offensive linemen.
Fountain-Fort Carson didn't take quite the hit in numbers, but it lost three pillars on defense in lineman Morgan Fox, linebacker Kevin Davis (a Parade All-America selection who will play this year at CSU) and defensive back Joe Jones.
Defensively, the Trojans will turn to linebackers Jake Harmon, Kevin McLaughlin and Diante Norman as well as defensive back Al Davis and defensive end Mitch Langer to fill much of the playmaking void.
Johnson is excited about the potential of junior quarterback Cameron Hacker and a loaded backfield that returns Trae Bankston, Anthony Davis and Ben Selby -- a group as deep and talented as any in the state.
"Offensively, they’re as good as I’ve ever seen them," Miller said.
The defenses have controlled this rivalry over the past two years; the Eagles won 13-3 in 2010 and 14-6 last year.
What will happen this year? We'll know in a matter of weeks.
"Everybody wants to be solid in that first game," Johnson said. "The scary part is that first games can be pretty sloppy and you look for your greatest improvement between Weeks 1 and 2. But we have to be ready."