Chestnut Ridge came up just short of making it to the PIAA Class AA football quarterfinals last year. With much of its lineup back, the Lions have designs on going even further this season.
So what better way to kick off the campaign than testing themselves against another 2012 playoff team with aspirations of doing much more in 2013, Central.
"With Central's speed and wide-open offense," Ridge coach Max Shoemaker said, "we'll have our hands full."
The reigning District 5 Class AA champion will take on the defending Mountain League runner-up and the third seed in last year's District 6 Class AA playoffs on opening night of the high school football season, Friday at Roaring Spring Athletic Field. Kickoff will be at 7 p.m.
"We're looking for [opponents] that will play well, and I think they will," Central coach Dave Baker said. "We would rather play teams that will be more competitive. It looks like a lot of the teams [on our schedule] will be more competitive, and they'll be one of them."
The squads welcome back 26 starters between them, and that group includes some of the top talent in the area. Ridge quarterback Beau Bosch ran for more than 1,300 yards last season and threw for another 600. The middle of the Lions' line is keyed by a pair of 250-plus-pound players, Austin Buttry and Shane Davis.
Game: Chestnut Ridge Lions (6-6 in 2012) vs. Central Scarlet Dragons (8-3 in 2012)
Where: Roaring Spring Athletic Field, Roaring Spring
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
The coaches: Chestnut Ridge - Max Shoemaker (127-72-1, 19th year); Central - Dave Baker (139-178-11, 34th year)
Series record: Tied, 1-1 (first met in 2007)
Last meeting: Central, 51-20 (Aug. 31, 2012)
Central's lineup includes two returning Mirror all-area first team performers in the backfield, quarterback Austin Cunningham and running back Bradi Moore. Fullback-defensive lineman Austin Conrath also is back for Baker, as are Tyler Miller, Jared Ponder, Collin and Casey Lythgoe and Adam Frederick in the trenches - all players that were Mountain League all-stars last year or have a good chance to be honored this season.
"Central has an outstanding squad and a good nucleus - a great nucleus - of players coming back," Shoemaker said. "It's a huge challenge. We've been trying to prepare one step at a time through our scrimmages and get to a point where we can hold our own. I think the kids look forward to the challenge of a game atmosphere after a couple of scrimmages. They have the speed they have the size. There aren't a whole lot of weaknesses.
"You like to build [up], but the schedule doesn't always afford you that opportunity."
Shoemaker knows firsthand how explosive the Dragons can be. Central scored 23 points in the opening quarter and 14 in each of the next two in a 51-20 win over Ridge in New Paris at the start of last season, a game in which the Dragons amassed more than 400 yards offensively and Cunningham and Moore each reached the end zone twice.
That was one of five games in which Central scored at least 40 points last season. It also was one of six contests in which Ridge allowed 28 or more, and trying to avoid playing in shootouts has been the prime focus of the Lion coaching staff since the end of last season.
"We feel we have to get better on the defensive side of the ball. We've wrestled with a couple of different systems," Shoemaker said. "This year we have a deeper understanding of what we're trying to do."
Of course, with the amount of talent on the field, the scoreboard could get another workout. Baker, too, thinks defense will be the key to opening the season with a win.
"Bosch is a good player. He can run the ball and throw well, and they have some good linemen," Baker said. "This will tell us more about whether we have the patience and the discipline to play against an option offense."
After going 8-2 in the regular season last year, Central was bounced by Forest Hills in the opening round of the playoffs, so the Dragons enter the season with something to prove.
"We need to step up our game in order to do better in the playoffs if we make the playoffs," Baker said. "The players are looking to that. If they have done the work and have the determination they say they have, then [that will happen]."