Games begin Thursday, Friday and Saturday this week. See the schedule for Milford High School in this story.

Can you feel it? The cooler weather? As you drive by a high school, can you hear the coach's whistle, the sound of a solid tackle and the marching band or cheerleaders practicing?

High school football season kicks off this week with games Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“The crisp air these past few mornings makes the hair on back on my neck stand up,” said Gary Cimaglia Sr., the new executive director of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association which supervises high school sports. “I came from a small town in Rhode Island, and as a kid I remember going to watch the high school games and thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ Then when I got to play, it was best time of year for me.”

Cimaglia went on to coach high school football before moving to administrative jobs in athletics.

“The school spirit that sports bring out really galvanizes a community and people rally around it. All the sports can do that, but football seems to be the one that brings out the most people.”

New challenges for last year’s champs

While anticipation and excitement runs high at the start of the high school football season, defending state champions Sussex Central and Woodbridge know it’s just the beginning of a marathon.

And it’s not how you start – it’s how you finish.

Sussex Central lost the 2018 season opener to Hodgson 26-6, then won 12 games in a row including the Division 1 state championship, a 33-7 triumph over Salesianum.

Woodbridge stumbled to a 1-2 start including a 24-21 loss to Wilmington Friends, then reeled off 10 straight victories, culminating in a 33-9 victory in the Division 2 state title game over that same Friends team.

“It’s not about the team that’s the best in the beginning of year,” said Sussex Central head coach John Wells.

Still, there’s not much room for error.

“It’s a 10-game schedule. Every game is important,” said Wells. “In some other sports with 18 to 20 games, you potentially don’t have to play your best ball every time. You can go through a little slump, and you can still get in the playoffs. In football with 10 games, it’s really important to play well every game.”

Wells said a team’s chances are also affected by scheduling – who you play and when.

“Last year, Hodgson was undefeated in the regular season and ended up being the top seed in the tournament,” he said. “We had to play them in our first game, and we lost to a premier team in state. That really put us behind the eight ball. We knew we had tough schedule after that, facing a lot of tough teams. We had to play at a high level in every game, and the boys did that last year.”

The Golden Knights don’t have Hodgson on their regular season schedule, but the two teams could meet in the playoffs. Hodgson is the top-ranked team in the state according to the high school sports website MaxPreps while Sussex Central is second.

Hodgson has 13 returning starters including quarterback CJ Henry, but the Golden Knights also bring back an experienced lineup including running backs TyJhir Sheppard and Shihiem Williams, wide receiver Jovon Toppin, center Caden Collins and offensive linemen Will Perkins, Logan Hellens and Chris Lombardi. On defense, returning starters include linebackers K’Tai Tilley and Alton Dennis, linemen Kasim Lewis and Tyrell Witke and Jevon Saffold at defensive back.

Wells said the Knights are focused on preparations for their first game.

“We want to work as hard as we can at practice, get as good as we can be as team and perform at a high level. When you prepare well and go out there and give 100 percent, good things will happen,” he said.

However, when asked about last year’s state title, Wells said the season was special for many reasons.

“It was the first time in school history, but it was the first time in 37 years for a Sussex County team to win the Division 1 title and only third time in history that a Sussex County school won the Division 1 title,” he said. “It’s not easy to do.”

He said winning the championship last year has advantages and disadvantages this season.

“We have a big freshman class coming out for football, and the championship may have been a factor,” he said. “Our returning players are confident. They played in big games, and they know they’ve done well, but they were confident last year and that’s why they won.”

As for the downside, “We’re going to see teams will be ready for us, more so than before,” said Wells. “I think people knew we are a solid, competitive program, but I don’t think anyone picked us to win it all last season. I think the big thing is the mental part. Last year is over. This year doesn’t have anything to do with last year. We need to have that mental focus on what we have to do this year to be successful.”

He said predicting the top competition is always difficult because no one knows how losing your graduating seniors will affect the rest of the team , some players transfer to different schools and some unknown players move up from junior varsity and have a breakout season.

“From what I remember, Salesianum has a lot of returning players and a couple kids who’ve transferred in,” said Wells. “Middletown is also a great program. Hodgson obviously has a lot of talented players coming back. Smyrna had guys hurt who have healed, and you can never count out the William Penns of the world. Dover retools pretty well. They’re talented. There’s going to be several teams vying for Division 1.”

Milford moving up

In Delaware, high school football teams are classified as Division 1 or 2 based on the school’s enrollment. The schools with larger enrollments are in Division 1, and the schools with smaller enrollments are in Division 2.

With the addition to the Henlopen Conference of Early College High School at Delaware State University, known as ECHS@DSU, the conference has 16 teams for 2019.

The eight schools with the largest enrollments are in the Northern Division, while the eight schools with smaller enrollments are in the Southern Division, regardless of where the schools are located.

That change has moved Milford from the Southern Division to the Northern Division in all sports, even though two schools, ECHS@DSU and Sussex Academy, don’t have football teams.

So now the Northern Division has eight teams for football: Caesar Rodney, Cape Henlopen, Dover, Milford, Polytech, Smyrna, Sussex Central and Sussex Tech.

The Southern Division has six schools with football teams: Delmar, Indian River, Lake Forest, Laurel, Seaford and Woodbridge.

Sussex Academy and ECHS@DSU will compete in other sports as members of the Southern Division.

Is football a cash cow for schools?

With hundreds of people attending football games and ticket prices of $5 for adults at most schools, the sport generates a lot of money – but the expenses are high as well. Some schools don't even come close to breaking even.

Smyrna High School athletic director Bill Schultz said the revenue from football game ticket sales isn’t enough to cover all the costs, such as football uniforms, helmets and equipment, coaches’ salaries, maintaining the stadium and electricity for those “Friday night lights.”

The district is also responsible for paying workers such as announcers, clock operators, referees, chain crew, ticket sellers, custodial costs, police officers and security.

While a home football playoff game seems like it would be a financial bonus for those fortunate schools, they don’t receive any ticket revenue from those games. It goes to the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, the same as in other high school sports.

Cimaglia said the DIAA uses the funds from the tournament games to fund costs associated with the tournaments, such as paying referees and umpires, staffing, security, ticketing, trophies and medals.

The DIAA also serves as a resource for high schools about safety standards, concussion protocol, eligibility requirements for athletes and the rules for each sport.

“We’re here for them, but it’s the athletic directors and coaches who really have to make sure they’re following guidelines and make sure the athletes are properly equipped, preparing them to be competitive and safe.”

Qualifying for the state tournament

In Delaware, high school football teams are divided into Division 1 for schools with larger enrollments and Division 2 for schools with smaller enrollments. There is a Division 1 tournament and a Division 2 tournament.

In the Division 1 tournament, automatic berths go to the Blue Hen Conference Flight A champion and the Henlopen Conference Northern Division champion. The other four berths are determined by a point system.

In the Division 2 tournament, automatic berths go to the Flight B champ in the Blue Hen Conference and to the Southern Division winner in the Henlopen Conference. The other sixth berths are determined by a point system.

Here’s the point system for all teams:

Six points for a win over a Division 1 team,

Four points for a win over a Division 2 team,

Three points for a tie against a Division 1 team,

Two points for a tie against a Division 2 team,

One point for a loss to a Division 1 team,

One bonus point for each opponent that wins seven or eight games during the regular season,

One bonus point for each opponent that wins nine or 10 games during the regular season.

After totaling a team's points, that number is divided by the number of games a team played.

In case of a tie in the points standings, the first tie breaker is the team that won in head-to-head competition during the regular season if the tied teams played each other. The next tie breaker is the number of victories by a team’s opponents in the regular season. The third tie breaker goes to the team whose opponents had the fewest losses. If the teams are still tied, then the football tournament selection committee votes which team will play in the tournament.

Milford High School 2019 football schedule

*Sept. 5 at Indian River 7 p.m.

*Changed from Sept. 6 due to Hurricane Dorian.

Sept. 13 home vs. Delaware Military Academy 7 p.m. (Milford Hall of Fame Night)

Sept. 20 home vs. Cape Henlopen 7 p.m.

Sept. 27 at Sussex Tech 7 p.m.

Oct. 4 home vs. Dover 7 p.m.

Oct. 11 at Caesar Rodney 7 p.m.

Oct. 18 at Smyrna 7 p.m.

Oct. 25 at Sussex Central 7 p.m.

Nov. 1 home vs. Polytech 7 p.m. (Homecoming)

Nov. 8 home vs. Lake Forest 7 p.m.