It's not just about the Canon Game and the Bell Game anymore.
With the start of a new two-year cycle, football teams were reclassified and leagues were realigned to provide a new landscape for Colorado high school football.
One of the most significant impacts came in southern Colorado. The city of Pueblo to be exact.
The steel city is no stranger to intense rivalries, especially on the football field. On at least two occasions, Dutch Clark Stadium would fill to the brim as rivals battled for pride and hardware. Not state championship hardware, but rather a bell and a canon.
But that was it.
Now, playoff implications enter the mix and with Central, Centennial, South, East and County all in the same league — the Class 3A South Central League — Pueblo rivalries have more fuel and have become slightly more personal.
“It's a lot more personal," Central coach Kris Cotterman said. "All these kids know each other and played football against each other. The thing about Pueblo is you go to high school in the same area you grew in from fourth grade on. It’s definitely more personal and it’s going to be a lot of fun."
The coaches from every school feel the same way. Regardless of how long they've been in their positions, they all understand the weight that each game carries when it's Pueblo school against Pueblo school.
With all of them — the lone exception of being Class 4A's — back in the same conference, there is new a new fire burning on the weekends. It's a feeling that, while new for many, is a relic to those growing up and understanding how important all five teams are to each other.
"No matter the classification, the Bell Game and the Canon Game will always draw big crowds," East coach Andy Watts said. "Now the loyal fans who know the implications of it being a league game anticipate new rivalries, rivalries that I grew up watching with Centennial and East and Central and South. It’s definitely big for the city of Pueblo."
"I wouldn't say they're equally important."
There's always that one game that a team circles on the calendar. For Pueblo East, there is always that buildup to take on South.
Last year it was the Colts who came out on the winning end of the Canon Game. It was perhaps the second-biggest game of the year for South, which went on to claim the 4A state championship.
The Colts dropped to 3A this year and with East and South being in the same league, the stakes for the Canon Game have certainly been raised.
“Absolutely it’s done that," South coach Ryan Goddard said. "We talk about the Canon Game and the Canon Game is important in the community and to our schools respectively but tie it to a league game; obviously we have goals and one of those goals is to compete for a league championship, now you’re putting that on the Canon game as well.”
Neither team has to wait long in the league schedule to play for the canon. East and South face off on Friday to start the league schedule.
The Colts are coming off their first win of the season, a 20-12 win over Lewis-Palmer while the Eagles had a bye week following a tough loss to Discovery Canyon. Each side has been more than anxious for Oct. 5 to arrive.
“It's a big game for us every year," South junior receiver Jackson Dickerson said. "It's the start of league now, too. It's big for us knowing we have to go into league and try to win all those games this year."
And surely with the rest of the games against Pueblo teams counting in the league standings, aside from getting to take the canon home, this game counts just as much as each one after it, right?
“They're all important," East quarterback Luc Andrada said. "I would't say they're equally important because this is a big one for us.”
"It's going to draw more attention and a bigger crowd this year."
Standing room only. That's typically the atmosphere each year when Central and Centennial meet in the oldest football rivalry west of the Mississippi: The Bell Game.
If there's one thing that the city schools in Pueblo can do, it's relate to each other when it comes to their big rivalry games. Regardless of the year, regardless of the records, these games will always be big for the respective schools.
But in 2018, there is much more on the line than just whether or not the bell will painted a different color.
"I know for sure it’s going to draw more attention and a bigger crowd this year," Central offensive lineman Samu Bojorquez said. "The Bell Game has been big region-wise, but that it affects league and has playoff implications, it’s going to be bigger.”
For the last two years the bell has rang red with Centennial coming away with the win. The Bulldogs have won three of their first five games of the year. With a few weeks to go, they'll open the league slate against Durango this week before taking on their primary goal of the year, winning the city of Pueblo.
“That’s our motto going into league: Control the city," Centennial coach Jeff Wilkerson said. "The idea is to control the city and have (the other teams) beat up on each other a little bit. We're all excited."
The reality is that the league goes well beyond two rivalry games, regardless of their notoriety.
For the most part, the kids competing against each other in the South Central League have grown up with each other. Played with each other. And now they'll face off against each other in the hunt for what they feel is a city championship as well as a league championship.
"For most of us in our senior year, and guys that I grew up with that went to East and South and everywhere else, it's definitely going to be emotional," Bojorquez said.
Going down this road of emotion will eventually lead to something more being on the line: pride.
At the core of athletic competition, the one thing that is always on the line is pride. The pride that comes with trying to be the best team in Pueblo resonates through the hallways of each schools. It another reminder, that although each team is different, they're more alike than they'd ever want to admit.
"Anytime you get the Pueblo schools to play against each other there is a lot of pride at stake," Cotterman said. "The kids all play each other from third grade on, so it’s going to be a lot of fun."
Don't forget about...
The South Central League is certainly not confined to Pueblo. The six-team league also includes Durango, a team that has been a mainstay in the CHSAANow.com football poll for most of the season. The Demons are anything but an afterthought as each team looks to claim a league title.
And there is always the possibility that they play spoiler for any Pueblo team thinking that a league crown would be included with winning a city championship.
“They could," Watts said. "They're a talented team that's well coached. They're part of the reason why the league is going to be tough from top to bottom.”
Cotterman shares Watts' view on the Demons. Out-of-sight does certainly not mean out-of-mind.
"Durango's pretty good," he said. "I don't think you can be considered an outlier when you play football like they do."
It doesn't matter if it's East playing Centennial, or County playing Durango, the South Central League is going to provide quality football and intense rivalries through the remainder of the 2018.
This cycle has provided a perfect storm for one of the best high school sports towns in the state and when things kick off with the Canon Game on Friday, the Pueblo schools will be primed that the implications that the next five weeks will have.
"They're excited about the opportunity to play at Dutch Clark more often and to play against the guys they grew up playing against," Goddard said. "We'll see how it works out for us, but I think our kids are ready to step into this league and hopefully compete at a high level."