Are you ready for some football?
The 2012 regular season begins tonight with 154 high school games across the state of Indiana. It kicks off the countdown toward the state tournaments, and the outcomes set the tone for the next nine weeks.
Win, and all things seem possible. Lose, and you feel like Charlie Fields did last season.
New Albany dropped a 21-19 heartbreaker to Providence in Fields' debut as head coach. It was a setback for his young and unstable team, which started 0-5 and finished 1-9.
"We're trying to get the bad taste of last year out of our mouth," Fields said. "It takes a lot of wind out of your sails if you lose that first game."
Which way will the wind blow when New Albany and Providence, a rivalry of proximity that has created classic contests the last two meetings, meet at Murphy Stadium? Right now, it's swirling as each team has questions to answer.
Will a year of maturity help the Bulldogs, who fielded what Fields called a "heck of a good JV team" last year? Or can Providence, with only six returning starters, repeat recent history and pull out another close win? Both coaches would have liked to start with an easier opponent, but neither has that luxury.
"It's a rivalry game," said Providence's Larry Denison, who won his debut as head coach in last year's game. "Any time you get that, it brings out the best in both teams. We'll find out real fast if we're at that level."
"I don't know if it's good for the coaches," Fields added. "You don't like to play a rival in Game 1. That's why Ohio State and Michigan play at the end of the year. But you don't have to say anything to motivate the kids."
The intensity has produced outstanding games of late. Providence has won three straight in the series, including a 47-46 overtime thriller in 2010 and the two-point difference last year. Both games came down to extra points.
"Both teams will play very hard and physical," Fields said. "It's usually whoever makes the first mistakes. Unfortunately, that has been us."
Last year's Providence hero was running back Zack Johnson, who ran for 158 yards and scored the three TDs, and a defense that denied New Albany's final two deep drives. The Pioneers will need a new one to step forward, and Denison is counting on considerable contributions from running back Owen Mattingly -- "one of the best athletes we've had here in a long time," Denison said -- and new quarterback Nathan Banet.
They will test a New Albany defense that allowed 38.6 points per game a year ago.
New Albany's best offensive weapon will be senior quarterback Michael Diehl, who ran for 120 yards and a touchdown and threw for 77 yards last year against the Pioneers. Diehl was also New Albany's leading rusher last season with over 700 yards.
"He gave us a lot of problems running the football," Denison said. "Their whole offense runs through him."
New Albany has lost six of its last seven openers, the lone bright spot a 30-21 win at Providence in 2008.