This coming weekend, the Pickerington Central football team will get an opportunity to meet with members of the military who have been wounded while serving the country.
In addition, at 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30, the Tigers will open the season against Winter Park (Florida) in the Atlanta Freedom Bowl in Milton, Georgia. Their game is the second of six contests in the event, which begins Thursday, Aug. 29, and concludes Saturday, Aug. 31.
"We're going to fly down there, which will be an experience," coach Jay Sharrett said. "I don't like flying anyhow, but I think it's going to be a great matchup and a great showcase. It's a great facility, a great layout and the main thing that convinced us to do that trip is (the) Freedom Bowl activities. (The players are) going to meet service men and women who have been wounded in action. We're going to hear their message and ... they're going to do breakout sessions. I think that's something our kids need to hear. Then you wrap around a great opponent with Winter Park, it should be a great weekend and we're looking forward to it."
The Tigers considered participating in the Freedom Bowl's inaugural six-game event last season, but when the opportunity to play Chicago Phillips at Otterbein and be on ESPN arose, it was too good to pass up.
Central followed its 2017 state championship season by opening with a 49-18 victory over Phillips, marking its third consecutive win in a season opener.
The Tigers also opened on a neutral field in 2017, beating Detroit Cass Tech 24-21 at the University of Toledo.
"We're coached to take it one game at a time and we're very focused on the first game in Georgia," senior linebacker Dom Marasco said. "We're very thankful to the Pickerington community for their support and rallying behind us. We're very excited for the trip and the opportunity to represent Ohio football against a Florida powerhouse."
The matchup between Central and Winter Park looks glamourous on paper.
While the Tigers reached at least a Division I state semifinal for the third consecutive season and finished 11-3 last year, the Wildcats are coming off a 10-2 finish and have college recruits scattered throughout their lineup.
Winter Park lost its opener 35-21 on Aug. 23 to Apopka (Florida) Wekiva, but its opponent went 11-2 last season, including a 25-22 victory over the Wildcats.
Central and Winter Park both have quarterbacks who should end up playing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
The Tigers' Demeatric Crenshaw is a senior who returns for this third season as the starter after throwing for 1,115 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushing for eight scores last season. He has scholarship offers from numerous mid-major colleges.
Wildcats senior quarterback Casey Case passed for 1,235 yards and 18 touchdowns last season and has committed to Buffalo.
Other high-profile athletes for Central include senior linebacker and Ohio State commit Ty Hamilton, senior defensive lineman Abraham Alabi and junior defensive back and wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr.
Alabi should end up at least at a mid-major college and Styles is one of the top area recruits from the 2021 class.
Winter Park also features senior and University of Miami commit Marcus Clarke (WR/DB), senior and Texas commit Ethan Pouncey (DB/WR), senior Kyan Graham (DB) and juniors Daniel Edwards (DB) and Dakota Mitchell (DB). Graham, Edwards and Mitchell all have college offers.
Clarke had 59 receptions for 1,004 yards and 21 touchdowns last season.
"They're kind of a combination of Phillips and Cass Tech, who we played the year before," Sharrett said. "They're not going to drive the ball 15 plays down the field. They'll get a play here, a play there and advance it for a 60-, 70-yard touchdown. They have at least five guys that have documented offers and may have about 11 guys who have been offered."