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Grid Picks Column: Heckman looking to defend Grid Picks crown

Here we go again. The lights will turn on tonight at 7 p.m., the ball will be placed on the tee and we will kickoff the 2023 high school football season.

Defending 2022 Grid Picks champion Rod Heckman returns with a target on his back. The perennial odds on favorite defeated Brad Hurley by a good margin of five games last season and will be tough to dethrone from the king’s chair. Hurley, with his prediction that he would win it all last fall, is back with a vengeance to try to unseat the champ.

Pat Matsinko, always the bridesmaid and never the bride, finished third and Yours Truly made his best finish ever ending in fourth place on the list of 10.

Sam Matta, a usual bottom feeder, made a great leap and even threatened to jump into the lead, but couldn’t keep pace in the stretch run last November, ending up fifth.

From the bottom half of prognosticators, I’ll mention Emmett “The Boss” McCall. Each year he pledges to rise above the doom of the Pundit Pit, and each year, he finishes no better than mediocre. Could this be the year he finally proves to his staff his pigskin knowledge, or will it be another year of talk the talk, but not walk the walk?

Rounding out the rest of our crystal ballers are Mike Haines, TJ Engle, Kyle Magda and newcomer, Jeff Moeller. All will have their work cut out for them to make a run at “Hot” Rod Heckman and the perennial front-runners.

The preseason odds

As the pickers make their way to the starting gate for this year’s race, here are the odds for which one of us will hoist the Bob Ford Memorial Grid Picks Cup come November. Heckman: 3-1, Hurley: 8-1, Matsinko: 10-1, Yours Truly: 12-1, Matta: 15-1, Haines: 18-1, McCall: 20-1, Engle: 25-1, Magda: 30-1, Moeller: 40-1. Of course, high school football is loaded with weekly upsets that defy the odds, so it will not surprise me if a long shot is in the top three near the end of October.

Thursday night lights

Added to the customary Friday night games this season will be those played under the lights on Thursdays. A total of eight games by area teams will be played Thursdays in revised schedules caused by the declining number of certified officials who cannot cover all games on Fridays, so expect some will be doing double and even triple gridiron duty when Saturday afternoon games also come into play.

Flip the coin

In Week 1, there is little skill in making our picks since rosters change each year, and last year’s senior-laden powerhouses could be this year’s teams that struggle to reach .500. We flip the coin, or we simply choose winners based upon past win-loss records and schools with winning traditions.

Our crystal balls aren’t much help. Of the 15 games, only three are unanimous picks, two are split right down the middle at 50-50, and several are no better than 60% picked to win the game.

Local matchups

Two games feature area teams pitted against each other. Palmerton, with 2022 Times News Football Player of the Year Matt Machalik leading the Bombers, travel to Lehighton to take on the Tribe, while Northwestern begins to defend its district title against Tamaqua’s Blue Raiders. The consensus choice has Palmerton over Lehighton, and the Tigers to take down Tamaqua.

Five strive to jump start

Five other area teams will also look to get off to winning starts. Jim Thorpe plays Blue Mountain at Schuylkill Haven High School while the Eagles field is under repair. The Olympians feature serious speed on offense with several running backs that will look for holes through an inexperienced line. The majority of our staff sees a Blue Mountain win. Yours Truly and Mike Haines believes JT’s big plays will make the difference in what could be called an upset.

Marian is home to Schuylkill Haven. The Colts stumbled a bit after a decent start a year ago. Coach Stan Dakosty will have his horses ready to gallop right from the opening kickoff.

The Bulldogs of Northern Lehigh also begin their district title defense at Catasauqua. Elsewhere, the Pleasant Valley Bears and the Panther Valley Panthers both open at home tonight. The Black and Gold of Panther Valley is the consensus pick, but the Blue and White of Pleasant Valley has a tougher task against Bethlehem Catholic.

Out of Area Game of the Week

Two strong football programs open the season against each other. Coming off a 12-1 season, Northampton’s Konkrete Kids take to the road against The Vikings of Allentown Catholic. This should be a good measuring stick for both teams going forward. I like the Kids in a close one.

It’s not how you start …

It’s how you finish. The picker who jumps in front out of the gate rarely crosses the finish line first in November. Expect a logjam on Monday morning in the third annual race for the Bob Ford Memorial Grid Picks Cup. Buckle up your chin straps. Time to move the chains!

Rich Strack presents 2022 winner Rod Heckman with the Bob Ford Memorial Grid Picks trophy, provided by Delrose Awards in Lansford. EMMETT MCCALL/TIMES NEWS