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Published August 31. 2012 05:02PM

It's finally here.

After months of waiting, the high school football season is just hours away.

To get into the mood for that opening kickoff, here's an A-Z look at TIMES NEWS area football.

Afternoon games - There was a time when Saturday afternoon games were quite common. In fact, schools like Jim Thorpe, Northwestern and Marian have only been playing Friday night home games for the past 10-15 years. This season TIMES NEWS area teams will be playing just five afternoon games. Northwestern has two (at Wilson and Pen Argyl) while Palmerton (at Wilson), Lehighton (at Allen) and Pleasant Valley (at Wyomissing) each have one.

Bulldogs new field - Northern Lehigh will open the season tonight and there will be a special buzz around the Stadium. The reason won't be just because of another year of Bulldog football, but also because of the fact they'll be playing on newly-installed turf. A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held prior to Nolehi's matchup with Southern Lehigh.

Catch - There has been a minor change in the definition of a catch this season. In prior seasons, if a receiver jumped to make a catch and was pushed out of bounds by a defender before he got a part of his body inbounds, the referee could rule a catch if he determined the receiver could have come down inbounds. Now a receiver must be inbounds. Being pushed out will result in an incomplete pass.

District championships - Every area team has the goal of winning a district title. The last time a TIMES NEWS area team won a D-11 championship was 2010 when Northern Lehigh claimed the Class AA title. Other recent champs include Marian (2007), Northern Lehigh (2003) and Northwestern (2002).

Eastern Conference - Teams desire to reach district playoffs, but if they don't they'll settle for any postseason opportunity. The Eastern Conference offers that opportunity. Tamaqua has qualified for the EC playoffs in two of the last four seasons, including last year. Recently, Lehighton made it in 2005 while Panther Valley qualified in 2004.

Field goals - Sometimes three points can mean the difference between a win or a loss, so it's valuable to have a kicker than can boot a field goal. Last year, there were seven field goals kicked by TN area players. Lehighton's Jacen Nalesnik and Tamaqua's Lance Williams both had a pair while Marian's Paul Martin, Northwestern's Andrew Deutsch and Pleasant Valley's Jordan Caffrey each had one.

Goodbye rivalries - Back in 1998, Lehighton saw longtime rivalries with Tamaqua and Panther Valley end. In 2000, though, both were back on the schedule. The games usually attracted larger crowds and the PV contest eventually was moved to Thursday, which created extra excitement. Unfortunately, after 12 straight seasons those rivalries have one again ended because of Allen and Dieruff's entrance into the Mountain Valley Conference.

Hersheypark Stadium - Every high school football team in Pennsylvania hopes to playing here in mid-December. Hershey will again be the site of this year's PIAA championships. The Class A and AAA titles will be played on Friday, Dec. 14 while the Class AA and AAAA crowns will be decided on Saturday, Dec. 15.

Interceptions - Turnovers are a huge part of the game. And turnovers that are turned into touchdowns are even bigger. Last season, the nine TN area teams intercepted a combined total of 82 passes. Northern Lehigh led the way with 17, while Tamaqua had 13 and Northwestern picked off 12. Of those 82 interceptions, 10 of them were returned for scores.

Joining new league - Both Allen and Dieruff have left the Lehigh Valley Conference and are now members of the Mountain Valley Conference. Because of this, Lehighton and Pleasant Valley will both be playing the Allentown teams this year. In addition to that, Tamaqua has picked up the Canaries as a non-league opponent.

Kickoff returns for touchdowns - One of the most exciting plays in football is when a player takes a kickoff and goes to the house. Not only does it give a team points, but it can change a game's momentum. Last season, there were seven returns for scores with three of them coming from Pleasant Valley's Rob Getz. The others came from Jim Thorpe's Khaaliq Lynch, Northern Lehigh's Darien Middaugh, Northwestern's Payton Bachman and Panther Valley's Mike Weaver.

Long trips - Nobody likes to be on a bus too long, but there are times some teams have to make long trips. This season, the greatest distance a local team will have to travel is the nearly 70 miles Pleasant Valley must go to play Wyomissing. Tamaqua also has a trip to make, when it will go about 55 miles to take on Annville-Cleona.

Marian's entrance - There is a new entrance to the Men of Marian football stadium this season. Thanks to an anonymous donor, some improvements have been made. Included in those improvements are new fencing, a paved walkway with steps, better lighting and an archway.

New head coaches - Two new head coaches will be making their debuts this evening. The Tom McCarroll era starts in Lehighton when the Indians' new mentor faces his alma mater, Marian. At Northwestern, Josh Snyder will be guiding his own alma mater when the Tigers travel to take on Palisades.

Opening night - For some, tonight is like a holiday. For players, coaches and fans the long wait for the season to begin is finally over. For some teams, opening night means more than it does for others. In the TN area, Northern Lehigh has posted a 13-2 record over the last 15 opening nights. Other clubs with impressive marks include Marian (11-4) and Northwestern (11-4).

Passing touchdowns - In this day and age of more widespread offenses, it's shouldn't be a surprise to say that touchdowns through the air are becoming more common. A little research confirms the statement. From 1995-2005 there was an average number of 63.9 touchdown passes in a season by our area teams. That translates to 7.1 per team each year. Since 2006, that average has risen to 99.5 or 11.1 per team.

Quality of schedule - Never before a factor in making the district playoffs, a team's strength of schedule is now part of a new formula to determine playoff teams. While more about this will be written in future weeks, playing quality teams will actually help a team's rating. Beating a quality team, though, remains a better option.

Receivers - With the passing game more common, it makes sense that quality receivers are also becoming more frequent. Some of the top ones in our area include Lehighton's Jacen Nalesnik, Jim Thorpe's Khaaliq Lynch, Pleasant Valley's Andrew Romeo and Sekou Jones, and Northern Lehigh's Caleb Johnson.

Special teams - While we've already focused on field goals and kickoff returns, there are other important parts of special teams play. One of those is the punting game. Last season, there were four punt returns for touchdowns by area teams. Northern Lehigh's Dylan Hofmann did it twice while the others came from Lehighton's Jeremy Zellers and Pleasant Valley's Rob Getz.

TV coverage - For those in the Blue Ridge Communications coverage area, there will be more football games on TV this season. Each week Blue Ridge will cover two games each Friday night (instead of just one as in previous years). Tonight Parkland vs. Delaware Valley will be live on channel 13 while at the same time on channel 113 Tamaqua will take on Jim Thorpe.

Underclassmen - Usually every season, a couple of younger players emerge and either make their mark at the varsity level or improve on their first season. Some freshmen and sophomore who could shine this year include Pleasant Valley's Austyn Borre, Tamaqua's Brett Kosciolek, Northern Lehigh's Nate Farber, Lehighton's Wyatt Clements and Palmerton's Tre Nelson.

Visiting team - It's supposed to be harder to win on the road, but some area teams actually fare pretty well on the road. Over the past three seasons Northern Lehigh is 15-2 away from its home stadium, with both its losses coming at Pen Argyl last season. Palmerton, meanwhile, has had a better record on the road (13-12) than it has had at home (12-15) the last five years during the regular season.

Winning record - Only one TIMES NEWS area team posted a winning record a year ago. Northern Lehigh finished with a mark of 10-2. Since 2000, the Bulldogs have posted a winning record in 11 of the 12 seasons. Jim Thorpe is next with nine while Marian follows with seven.

XPs - Whether it's kicking an extra points or going for two, games are often decided by extra points. Last year, Northern Lehigh averaged an area best .93 extra point after a touchdown. The Bulldogs scored 43 extra points (31 on kicks and 12 on six successful two-point conversions) on their 46 touchdowns. Over the last five seasons, only one time has a team averaged one point or higher per TD scored. In 2010, Palmerton scored 26 touchdowns and finished with 28 extra points (a 1.08 average). The Bombers registered those extras by converting on 14 two-point conversions.

Yards of offense - While area teams averaged only 259.9 yards of offense per game last season, the lowest figure since 2005, some teams had some huge offensive games. Marian had the best effort with a 537-yard performance. Northwestern had 487 in one contest while Lehighton was also impressive with a 473-yard game. In the past 25 years, the most yards of offense by an area team in a game was the 587 Lehighton had during the 2000 season.

Zero points - Keeping a team scoreless is the goal of every defense. Surprising, only two local teams were able to register a shutout a year ago. Northern Lehigh blanked its opponent three times in 2011 while Lehighton also posted a shutout. Over the past five seasons, TN teams have recorded 42 shutouts with Nolehi leading the wy with nine. Over that same time frame Jim Thorpe and Northwestern each have seven.

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