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High School Football / Countdown to Friday Night Lights -- Class A North

Who's who: The eight-team division consists of the Grand Island Vikings, Kenmore East Bulldogs, McKinley Macks, North Tonawanda Lumberjacks, Starpoint Spartans, Sweet Home Panthers, Williamsville East Flames and Williamsville North Spartans.

This year's alignment shift: In a season full of classification changes, two mainstays of AA North slide down to A North. North Tonawanda won the AA North title eight times in a nine-year stretch that concluded with the 2009 state championship, while Williamsville North made the AA playoffs last year. Niagara-Wheatfield moved up to AA North. That leaves the division with eight teams after having seven each last year. The eight-team divisions cause imbalanced league schedules: In the seven-week season, Class A teams will play six of the seven teams in their division along with one nonleague game. Notable on the A North schedule is that -- by the (un)luck of the draw -- NT and Sweet Home (state champion in 2008 and 2009) do not play a league game against each other.

Last year's champion: Sweet Home won its fourth straight divisional title, then went on to win its fourth straight Section VI Class A championship by beating Williamsville South, 48-15, in a highly anticipated championship game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. That was the 36th straight win for Sweet Home (the third-longest win streak in Western New York history), which was ranked first in The News large school poll all season. Both of those streaks came to an end after Sweet Home lost to Rochester private school power Aquinas, 36-6, in the Far West Regionals. For the fourth straight season, the Sweet Home-Aquinas regional winner went on to win the state championship (Aquinas won it in 2007 and 2010).

2010 rewind: While Sweet Home continued to set its standard of excellence in a season in which it was rarely challenged, there were good stories behind the division's co-coaches of the year. McKinley -- which gave Sweet Home a scare early in their first meeting -- was one of the most impressive city teams in a great first year in Section VI for the Buffalo Public Schools. Chris McDuffie had a fine first year at Williamsville East as the Flames, like the Macks, knocked off A South teams in the quarterfinals to advance to the Class A final four.

Last year's records: Sweet Home 6-0, 10-1; Williamsville East 4-2, 5-4; McKinley 4-2, 6-3; Grand Island 3-3, 3-5; Starpoint 3-3, 5-4; Kenmore East 1-7, 1-5. Williamsville North 4-2, 6-3; North Tonawanda 3-3, 5-3 in AA North.

2010 All-Western New York underclassmen: Sweet Home junior QB Jordan Johnson made second-team. McKinley sophomore WR Stephon Johnson and Williamsville East sophomore DB Mitch Wagner were honorable mentions.

2010 all-league first-team underclassmen: Jordan Johnson, Stephon Johnson and Wagner were joined by four juniors: Sweet Home LB Tim Oaks, Starpoint DB Corey Regnet, Williamsville East LB Mike Wheeler and Kenmore East P Russ Williams.

Pre-snap read: Sweet Home, as it has been for many years, is still the team to beat -- especially with a standout run-and-pass playmaker like Johnson back. But the divisional depth is impressive. Williamsville East and McKinley have key cogs back after excellent seasons. A total of five teams were in the playoffs last season (Sweet Home, Williamsville East, McKinley, GI in a down year, plus Williamsville North in AA). Two other teams won the Chuck Funke Memorial Consolation Bowl titles (NT in AA and Starpoint in A). NT won its last three games under coach Eric Jantzi (86-23 in 11 years); Rick Tomm takes over as the Jacks' head coach in one of many torch-passings at top programs this year. The division not only got bigger, but better, with the swap out of a Niagara-Wheatfield team that was winless last year.

Week One must-see games: The entire division kicks off Saturday, with the earliest contest a great matchup as NT makes its divisional debut against McKinley at 1 p.m. at Riverside. Sweet Home hosts Williamsville East at 2 while Grand Island (at Bennett at 4) and Starpoint (at Lockport at 2) both start with nonleague contests on the road.

Scrimmage Saturday: Teams were able to hit the field for scrimmages for the first time on Saturday. Check buffalonews.com for a PrepTalkTV report, photos and a running account of visits to scrimmages on the Prep Talk blog. Included is a stop at Lockport, where Sweet Home, North Tonawanda and Grand Island met up with St. Francis, Williamsville South and the host Lions.

Live chats kick off next week: The first of the weekly Wednesday night live chats will be this Wednesday at 8 p.m. at buffalonews.com.

At buffalonews.com: Watch the first PrepTalkTV episode of the season as Lauren Mariacher reported on the first day of practice, check out video interviews with 31 different coaches and review the complete week-by-week schedule.

The countdown continues: AA South (Monday), AA North (Tuesday), Monsignor Martin (Wednesday). Review them all -- including A South, Class B, C, D and DD -- at buffalonews.com.

Season preview coming Thursday: The annual preview issue will have capsules and schedules for all 82 teams in Western New York along with feature stories, a must-see cover and everything else one needs to know about the 2011 season.

Attention coaches & ADs -- rosters needed ASAP: If coaches have not done so already, they need to email a roster -- in spreadsheet form -- to kmcshea@buffnews.com as soon as possible. Spreadsheet forms have been emailed to all coaches and athletic directors.

-- Keith McShea