Games for some high school teams in Delaware start Thursday. Middletown, Appoquinimink and St. Georges Tech are in action Friday. See their schedules in this story.

Can you feel it? The cooler weather? As you drive by a high school, can you hear the coach’s whistle, the sound of a solid tackle and the marching band or cheerleaders practicing?

High school football season kicks off this week with games Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“The crisp air these past few mornings makes the hair on back on my neck stand up,” said Gary Cimaglia Sr., the new executive director of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association which supervises high school sports. “I came from a small town in Rhode Island, and as a kid I remember going to watch the high school games and thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ Then when I got to play, it was best time of year for me.”

Cimaglia went on to coach high school football before moving to administrative jobs in athletics.

“The school spirit that sports bring out really galvanizes a community and people rally around it. All the sports can do that, but football seems to be the one that brings out the most people.”

Middletown and Appo coming off tournament appearances

Middletown and Appoquinimink were among the six teams that qualified for the Division 1 state tournament for schools with larger enrollments last season, but both lost in the first round.

Middletown finished the regular season 9-1, falling only to Hodgson, and then lost in the state tournament to Salesianum. This year, the Cavaliers open their schedule at home against Smyrna Friday, Sept. 6 in the Harvest Bowl. The Eagles won three straight state championships from 2015 to 2017 including the last two over Middletown, but in 2018 they stumbled to a 3-6 record with just nine games on their schedule.

After previously playing in the Division 2 tournament, Appoquinimink qualified for the Division 1 tournament for the first time last year with a 6-4 record. In the first round, the Jags lost to eventual state champion Sussex Central. Appo starts the season on the road at Caesar Rodney Friday, Sept. 6. The Riders finished 5-5 in 2018.

St. Georges progressing in Division 1

After multiple appearances in the Division 2 state tournament, St. Georges Tech moved up to Division 1 for schools with larger enrollments two years ago. The Hawks finished 4-6 in 2017 and 5-5 last year, including a 28-17 victory over Appo.

This season, the Hawks have the chance to make another step up, starting with a road game at Cape Henlopen Friday, Sept. 6.

New challenges for last year’s champs

While anticipation and excitement runs high at the start of the high school football season, defending state champions Sussex Central and Woodbridge know it’s just the beginning of a marathon.

And it’s not how you start – it’s how you finish.

Sussex Central lost the 2018 season opener to Hodgson 26-6, then won 12 games in a row including the Division 1 state championship, a 33-7 triumph over Salesianum.

Woodbridge stumbled to a 1-2 start including a 24-21 loss to Wilmington Friends, then reeled off 10 straight victories, culminating in a 33-9 victory in the Division 2 state title game over that same Friends team.

“It’s not about the team that’s the best in the beginning of year,” said Sussex Central head coach John Wells.

Still, there’s not much room for error.

“It’s a 10-game schedule. Every game is important,” said Wells. “In some other sports with 18 to 20 games, you potentially don’t have to play your best ball every time. You can go through a little slump, and you can still get in the playoffs. In football with 10 games, it’s really important to play well every game.”

He said predicting the top competition is always difficult because no one knows how losing your graduating seniors will affect the rest of the team, some players transfer to different schools and some unknown players move up from junior varsity and have a breakout season.

“From what I remember, Salesianum has a lot of returning players and a couple kids who’ve transferred in,” said Wells. “Middletown is also a great program. Hodgson obviously has a lot of talented players coming back. Smyrna had guys hurt who have healed, and you can never count out the William Penns of the world. Dover retools pretty well. They’re talented. There’s going to be several teams vying for Division 1.”

Hodgson head coach Frank Moffett Jr. said his team accomplished a milestone last year, finishing 10-0 and winning the Blue Hen Conference Flight A title.

“It was really exciting for the program,” he said. “We set that goal in August of 2018, and worked hard to accomplish it. In our second year in Division 1, we captured our first BHC Flight A championship and the No. 1 seed in the tournament.”

However, the returning players are motivated by disappointing defeats in the playoffs the past two seasons.

“The team is setting its sights on repeating as Blue Hen Conference Flight A champions and reaching the championship game at Raymond Stadium,” said Moffett. “Our team theme is ‘Unfinished Business...No Excuses.’ We set the goal to win the conference again. It will be tough, because everyone is gunning to knock you off the championship throne. To win it again, we must respect all of our conference opponents, but not fear them, and play sound, tough football.”

He said he expects the biggest challenges in Division 1 to come from Middletown, Dover, Smyrna and Salesianum.

Is football a cash cow for schools?

With hundreds of people attending football games and ticket prices of $5 for adults at most schools, the sport generates a lot of money – but the expenses are high as well. Some schools don’t even come close to breaking even.

Smyrna High School athletic director Bill Schultz said the revenue from football game ticket sales isn’t enough to cover all the costs, such as football uniforms, helmets and equipment, coaches’ salaries, maintaining the stadium and electricity for those “Friday night lights.”

The district is also responsible for paying workers such as announcers, clock operators, referees, chain crew, ticket sellers, custodial costs, police officers and security.

While a home football playoff game seems like it would be a financial bonus for those fortunate schools, they don’t receive any ticket revenue from those games. It goes to the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, the same as in other high school sports.

Cimaglia said the DIAA uses the funds from the tournament games to fund costs associated with the tournaments, such as paying referees and umpires, staffing, security, ticketing, trophies and medals.

The DIAA also serves as a resource for high schools about safety standards, concussion protocol, eligibility requirements for athletes and the rules for each sport.

“We’re here for them, but it’s the athletic directors and coaches who really have to make sure they’re following guidelines and make sure the athletes are properly equipped, preparing them to be competitive and safe.”

Appoquinimink High School 2019 football schedule

Sept. 6 at Caesar Rodney 7 p.m.

Sept. 13 home vs. Delcastle 7 p.m.

Sept. 20 home vs. Salesianum 7 p.m.

Sept. 27 home vs. William Penn 7 p.m. (Homecoming)

Oct. 4 home vs. St. Mark’s 7 p.m.

Oct. 12 at St. Georges Tech 12 p.m.

Oct. 18 at Middletown 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 26 at Mt. Pleasant 10:30 a.m.

Nov. 1 home vs. Concord 7 p.m.

Nov. 9 at Hodgson 10:30 a.m.

Middletown High School 2019 football schedule

Sept. 6 home vs. Smyrna 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 13 home vs. Concord 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Hodgson 10:30 a.m.

Sept. 28 at Delcastle 11 a.m.

Oct. 4 home vs. Caesar Rodney 7:30 p.m. (Homecoming)

Oct. 11 home vs. William Penn 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 18 home vs. Appoquinimink 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 26 at St. Georges Tech 12 p.m.

Nov. 2 vs. Salesianum at Brandywine 7 p.m.

Nov. 9 at Mt. Pleasant 10:30 a.m.

St. Georges Tech High School 2019 football schedule

Sept. 6 at Cape Henlopen 7 p.m.

Sept. 14 home vs. Hodgson 12 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Delcastle 11 a.m.

Sept. 27 at Caravel 7 p.m.

Oct. 5 at William Penn 2 p.m.

Oct. 12 home vs. Appoquinimink 12 p.m. (Homecoming)

Oct. 19 home vs. Salesianum 12 p.m.

Oct. 26 home vs. Middletown 12 p.m.

Nov. 2 home vs. Mt. Pleasant 12 p.m.

Nov. 9 at Concord 10:30 a.m.