Season openers Thursday, Friday and Saturday. See the schedules for A.I. du Pont, Dickinson, McKean and St. Mark's 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.”

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.”

Wells said a team’s chances are also affected by scheduling – who you play and when.

“Last year, Hodgson was undefeated in the regular season and ended up being the top seed in the tournament,” he said. “We had to play them in our first game, and we lost to a premier team in state. That really put us behind the eight ball. We knew we had tough schedule after that, facing a lot of tough teams. We had to play at a high level in every game, and the boys did that last year.”

Wells said winning the state championship was special for many reasons.

“It was the first time in school history, but it was the first time in 37 years for a Sussex County team to win the Division 1 title and only third time in history that a Sussex County school won the Division 1 title,” he said. “It’s not easy to do.”

The Golden Knights don’t have Hodgson on their regular season schedule, but the two teams could meet in the playoffs. Hodgson is the top-ranked team in the state according to the high school sports website MaxPreps while Sussex Central is second.

Wells 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 understand the preparation needed to get to the tournament. It’s a great deal of hard work and commitment in the off season, which leads to consistency during the season. Playing in the tournament, you have to be playing some of your best football.”

Returning starters for the Silver Eagles include quarterback CJ Henry, running back and defensive lineman Darius Hale, offensive lineman and linebacker Eric Shimko, wide receiver Elijah Lewis, defensive back and wide receiver Ny’Ghee Lolley, linebacker and tight end Quamere Meadows, offensive linemen Seth Bowser, Nick Doe and Dante Smith, defensive linemen Amir Mitchell and Tashon Fitzgerald and linebackers Clarence Travis and Ervin Phillips.

“We set the goal to win the conference again,” said Moffett. “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 Dover, Middletown, 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.”

Qualifying for the state tournament

In Delaware, high school football teams are divided into Division 1 for schools with larger enrollments and Division 2 for schools with smaller enrollments. There is a Division 1 tournament and a Division 2 tournament.

In the Division 1 tournament, automatic berths go to the Blue Hen Conference Flight A champion and the Henlopen Conference Northern Division champion. The other four berths are determined by a point system.

In the Division 2 tournament, automatic berths go to the Flight B champ in the Blue Hen Conference and to the Southern Division winner in the Henlopen Conference. The other sixth berths are determined by a point system.

Here’s the point system for all teams:

Six points for a win over a Division 1 team,

Four points for a win over a Division 2 team,

Three points for a tie against a Division 1 team,

Two points for a tie against a Division 2 team,

One point for a loss to a Division 1 team,

One bonus point for each opponent that wins seven or eight games during the regular season,

One bonus point for each opponent that wins nine or 10 games during the regular season.

After totaling a team's points, that number is divided by the number of games a team played.

In case of a tie in the points standings, the first tie breaker is the team that won in head-to-head competition during the regular season if the tied teams played each other. The next tie breaker is the number of victories by a team’s opponents in the regular season. The third tie breaker goes to the team whose opponents had the fewest losses. If the teams are still tied, then the football tournament selection committee votes which team gets the higher seed in the tournament.

A.I. du Pont High School 2019 football schedule

Sept. 7 at Wilmington Friends 2 p.m.

Sept. 13 home vs. Christiana 6 p.m.

Sept. 20 at Indian River 7 p.m.

Sept. 27 home vs. Newark 6 p.m.

Oct. 4 home vs. Charter 6 p.m.

Oct. 11 at Dickinson 6 p.m.

Oct. 18 home vs. Glasgow 6 p.m. (Homecoming)

Oct. 26 vs. Howard at Caravel 7 p.m.

Nov. 1 home vs. Brandywine 6 p.m.

Nov. 8 at McKean 6 p.m.

Dickinson High School 2019 football schedule

Sept. 6 at Pitman, New Jersey 7 p.m.

Sept. 13 home vs. McKean 6 p.m.

Sept. 20 home vs. Christiana 6 p.m.

Sept. 27 home vs. First State Military 6 p.m. (Homecoming)

Oct. 5 at Newark 12 p.m.

Oct. 11 home vs. A.I. du Pont 6 p.m.

Oct. 18 home vs. Red Lion 6 p.m.

Oct. 26 at Glasgow 12 p.m.

Oct. 31 vs. Howard at Caravel 7 p.m.

Nov. 7 at Brandywine 7 p.m.

McKean High School 2019 football schedule

Sept. 6 at Tatnall 4 p.m.

Sept. 13 at Dickinson 6 p.m.

Sept. 20 home vs. Glasgow 6 p.m.

Sept. 26 vs. Howard at Caravel 7 p.m.

Oct. 4 home vs. Brandywine 6 p.m.

Oct. 11 at Red Lion 7 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Christiana 2 p.m.

Oct. 25 home vs. Delcastle 6 p.m. (Homecoming)

Nov. 2 at Newark 10:30 a.m.

Nov. 8 home vs. A.I. du Pont 6 p.m.

St. Mark’s High School 2019 football schedule

Sept. 6 home vs. Conrad 7 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. St. Elizabeth at Caravel 7:30 p.m.

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

Sept. 28 at Archmere 2 p.m.

Oct. 4 at Appoquinimink 7 p.m.

Oct. 11 home vs. Newark 7 p.m.

Oct. 18 at Delaware Military Academy 7 p.m.

Oct. 25 at Kennett 7 p.m.

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

Nov. 8 home vs. Salesianum 7 p.m.