When the Ohio High School Athletic Association introduced Friday Night Futbol as a statewide soccer initiative in 2015, New Albany High School boys coach Johnny Ulry was confident it would turn into a success.
Two years later, he has been proven correct as soccer continues to stake its claim to ownership of the final Friday before football season.
Soccer will take center stage across the state Friday, Aug. 18, with well more than 100 season-opening games being played.
"It's taken off like a storm," said Ulry, whose team will play host to Marysville. "There are (boys-girls) doubleheaders. You have some rivalry games. It's nice to claim a Friday night as a soccer night, and it seems like something all schools look forward to."
OHSAA assistant commissioner Jerry Snodgrass, who oversees soccer and originally proposed Friday Night Futbol, said the event has grown in popularity each year and become a staple social event in some areas.
"This has become 10 times what we hoped it would be," Snodgrass said. "It gives soccer its special night, in most cases it's the first week of school and by this point, kids are craving for a social event to attend. It's the first real spectator sport (event) of the year. It grew after its first year, and it's growing again. I just encourage it."
According to Snodgrass, the exact number of games and participating teams was to be finalized earlier this week.
New Albany has participated every season. The Eagles played host to Hilliard Bradley in 2015 and Watkins Memorial last year, coincidentally winning both games by 3-0 scores.
According to Ulry, the games have averaged more than 2,000 fans each year. The New Albany band has performed at halftime -- which is expanded from 10 to 15 minutes for this night only -- and food trucks have provided concessions.
A handful of boys-girls doubleheaders are scheduled, including Big Walnut at Teays Valley, Grove City at Westerville North, Hilliard Davidson at Hilliard Bradley and Licking Heights at Pickerington North.
Other teams participating from ThisWeek's coverage area include the boys teams from Bexley, Dublin Scioto, Grandview, Grove City Christian, Ready, St. Charles and Upper Arlington and the girls teams from Central Crossing, DeSales, Grandview, Hartley, Olentangy, Ready, Thomas Worthington and UA.
Bradley's boys visited Davidson for last year's opener, and will play host to the return game as part of Friday Night Futbol. That will be the second half of their doubleheader.
"It's great to start the season this way, especially with a rivalry game," Davidson boys coach Dan Hoover said. "It's not your normal Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday rotation, and if you do it right, you will get the community involved. The kids work hard all summer and they deserve this kind of exposure. They experienced the atmosphere last year and they're excited to get another chance at it."
At Pickerington North, the girls game is scheduled for 6 p.m., followed by the boys at approximately 7:45. Both Panthers teams are participating in Friday Night Futbol for the first time.
"It's cool, something to draw attention and get some bigger crowds from people who might not see us play otherwise," North girls coach Greg Van Kannel said. "I think it's great that the OHSAA does something like this. I am not sure the girls have thought a lot about it. To them, it'll probably be just another game, and that's pretty much exactly how I want them to treat it -- keep things low-key and play your best."
Given that some area football games are moved to Thursday nights for television purposes -- 14 currently are scheduled for Thursdays this season -- Ulry did not discount more Friday night games taking place later in the season down the road. Snodgrass acknowledged that was a possibility, adding that some small schools in northwest Ohio that do not have football already play a handful of Friday games.
"Just to see it keep growing and more programs wanting to do it, whether they play at home or on the road, is extremely encouraging," Ulry said.