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High School Football / Countdown to Friday Night Lights -- Monsignor Martin

*Who's who: The six-team division consists of the Bishop Timon-St. Jude Tigers, Canisius Crusaders, Cardinal O'Hara Hawks, St. Francis Red Raiders, St. Joe's Marauders and St. Mary's Lancers.

*This year's alignment shift: After operating with separate AA and A divisions for several years, the league has consolidated into one. The four traditional AA or "large" schools -- Timon, Canisius, St. Francis and St. Joe's -- and O'Hara will all play each other during the regular season. O'Hara won the last six A titles, all coming against St. Mary's. St. Mary's is playing a partial league schedule (only games with Timon and O'Hara) and is the automatic No. 6 seed for the playoffs. Nichols is playing an independent schedule this season while Niagara Catholic is playing a JV schedule only.

*Last year's champion: St. Joe's started 1-3 but won its last four games against league opponents, culminating with a 49-20 rout of St. Francis at Ralph Wilson Stadium in which quarterback Chad Kelly ran for three touchdowns and threw for two. The title came in the first season for head coach Dennis Gilbert. It was the first championship for St. Joe's since the 2006 team won its second straight. The Marauders' 6-5 record included losses to St. Francis, Rochester's Aquinas, Monsignor Farrell of Staten Island, and two Ohio teams, Cleveland Heights and Steubenville.

*2010 rewind: The season started with Canisius as the defending champion and favorite, and it backed that with a 30-20 win over visiting Cathedral Prep, the powerful team from Erie, Pa., which had won nine straight games over New York teams since 2002. Also in Week Four, St. Francis made a statement with a 49-21 win at St. Joe's. In Week Five, the season's script was flipped as host St. Joe's crushed rival Canisius, 50-26. In Week Six, St. Francis' Akeel Lynch suffered a detached tendon in his left ring finger. In the playoffs, St. Joe's was again home as it beat Canisius, 35-19, in the Monsignor Martin semifinals. Cardinal O'Hara beat Timon during the regular season; the Hawks romped over small-school competition but lost by at least 17 points to the other "large schools" in the MMA.

*Last year's records: St. Joe's 2-1, 6-5; St. Francis 2-1, 4-7; Canisius 2-1, 7-3; Bishop Timon-St. Jude 0-3, 3-7 in League AA. Cardinal O'Hara 3-0, 7-4; St. Mary's 2-1, 7-3; Nichols 1-2, 4-5; Niagara Catholic 0-3, 1-5 in League A.

*2010 All-Western New York underclassmen: St. Joe's junior QB/DB Chad Kelly was named to the first team as a DB. Canisius juniors RB Mercer Timmis and OL Corey Madlock and St. Francis RB Akeel Lynch were named to the second team. Cardinal O'Hara junior DL Larry Middlebrooks was named to the third team. St. Francis juniors OL Joe Smith and LB RauDric Parks, O'Hara junior OL Chris Driver and St. Mary's RB Justin Burke were honorable mentions.

*2010 all-league first-team underclassmen: In AA, St. Francis juniors Lynch, Smith, Parks and DB Gabriel Tasker; St. Joe's Kelly (offensive player of the year), sophomore DB Ilo Noble and freshman DB Nigel Davis; Bishop Timon-St. Jude juniors WR Jordan Williams and LB Tim Cizek and Canisius' Timmis. In A, Cardinal O'Hara juniors Middlebrooks, OL Devon Rose, DL Kyree Carter and sophomore DBs Khari Wright and Anthony DeFrancesco; St. Mary's juniors Burke (defensive player of the year), RB Erik O'Neill, DL Kyle DiPirro, DL Al Kelly and LB Ryan Bonville; Nichols sophomores WR Adam Noonan and DB Liam Ryan.

*Pre-snap read: The talent level in the league is higher than its been in many years, with two players having verbally committed to major Division I programs this summer: Kelly to Clemson and Lynch to Boston College. Canisius boasts major talent as well led by Timmis. St. Joe's is a champion with a top quarterback, but Lynch's return after being absent the second half of the season, and Canisius' returning of several promising players should make for an interesting and competitive regular season. There are also two compelling coaching changes: Rich Robbins takes over at Canisius and tries to continue the on-field and collegiate recruiting success of Brandon Harris, while Timon all-time great Charlie Comerford begins his coaching career by trying to pump some life into a Tigers program that has struggled for most of the seasons since his graduation (2001). O'Hara and coach Angelo Sciandra have been a top small school program for years. The dissolving of League A makes their fight for a championship much tougher, but they shouldn't be an easy out for any team.

*Week One must-see games: The must-see game of Week One is unquestionably St. Joe's hosting defending Class A state champion Aquinas of Section V (Rochester area) at 2 p.m. Saturday. Aquinas has beaten Monsignor Martin teams 19 straight times -- including a sweep of St. Joe's, St. Francis and Canisius last year -- and the private school ended a two-game Far West Regional losing streak to Sweet Home when it beat the Panthers on its way to the state championship. There is a very compelling league matchup as well, as Cardinal O'Hara (which has beaten Timon often in recent years) visits South Buffalo for Comerford's coaching debut Friday night; meanwhile, Canisius opens at Rochester's McQuaid Jesuit. On Saturday, St. Francis kicks off in the Carrier Dome against Liverpool of Section III (Syracuse area) as part of the Kickoff Classic. St. Mary's has a tough opener as it hosts an I-Prep/Grover team which was a top small school all of last season.

*Scrimmage Saturday: Teams hit the field for scrimmages for the first time on Saturday. Check buffalonews.com for a PrepTalkTV report (including Canisius' scrimmage at Orchard Park), a photo gallery and a running account of visits to scrimmages on the Prep Talk blog -- the blog includes 34 additional videos, including action from St. Francis and Cardinal O'Hara.

*Live chats kick off today: The first of the weekly live chats at buffalonews.com will be at 8 p.m. today. A video chat will be added later.

*At buffalonews.com: Along with the scrimmage coverage, 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 has concluded: Review countdown capsules from all other divisions in Western New York (Section VI's AA, A, 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