By Ken Jackson
Kickoff Classic football games are more of a walkthrough than anything, a chance for coaches to see how many new players react in live-game situations for the first time against an opponent wearing a different color.
It isn’t always that a preseason week game is an event unto itself, but that happens Friday went Osceola County unveils its new stadium complex at Austin-Tindall Sports Complex. It’s the big piece of a $12 million park expansion that included additional fields, concession buildings and parking.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony at 5:30 will precede the 7 p.m. kickoff.
It also doesn’t hurt that the game matchup is probably the most intriguing in all of Central Florida on Friday. Osceola and Dr. Phillips will pick up what has become an intense rivalry, particularly on the scoreboard and what their matchups have meant.
Less than nine months ago, the Panthers defeated the Kowboys, 17-13, in the Class 8A Region 2 semifinals with a touchdown in the final 13 seconds. Dr. Phillips went on to the state championship. In 2015, the Kowboys won a regional semifinal, 20-19, on the way to the 8A title game.
Even last year’s Kickoff Classic was spirited; instead of backups and junior varsity players taking over in the fourth quarter, both staffs left starters in an OHS took a 30-27 win.
So in three prior meetings, including a Kickoff Classic, the scoreboard reads: Osceola 63, Dr. Phillips 63.
Who knows what to expect on the field. Both teams will feature new quarterbacks, as Braxton Jones and BeSean McCray graduated, and look to replace other impact players. Much of Osceola’s backfield and defensive lines will feature new faces, and the Panthers look to replace running back Devodney Alford (who caught November’s game-winning score) and do-it-all athlete Tanner Ingle, who set up the TD with a long kickoff return.
Still, with an entire offensive line returning, and adding senior block of granite Nash Nelson from St. Cloud, OHS Coach Doug Nichols expects another great contest.
“Offensively up front, we’re good,” he said. “The backfield is new, so let’s see what they do behind them. Defensively we’re still putting in some pieces. It should be a great game Friday, and we’re blessed to be able to play the defending state champs at Austin-Tindall Park.”
One of the pieces added on defense won’t play a down but will be key — defensive coordinator Scott Spencer, who oversaw some salty Kowboy defenses over the last decade, returns after a short hiatus. He’s still in there coaching after reportedly suffering a cardiac episode on the first day of fall practice.
As for the production at Austin-Tindall, stadium staff will be treating it more like the team’s two playoff games than a preseason classic.
“This is our bowl game, we’ve been working up to this for years,” Facility Director Jeff Kuenzli said. “We’re going all out. This is our first impression, and we only get one shot at it.”