The band is taking its place along the sideline. The dry-erase boards are plotting their second-half strategies in the locker room. It's Week 6 of the high school football season -- halftime -- and teams are emerging and fading as the midpoint sets up under center.
Several North Xtra region teams have played up to expectations thus far, many have figured things out and are turning programs around, while some, either due to injuries or inexperience, are struggling for that elusive "W."
In WPIAL Class AAAA, North Allegheny opened the season as two-time defending WPIAL champion, ranked No. 1 in the Post-Gazette's preseason rankings and is currently ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL and PIAA. The unbeaten Tigers (5-0, 4-0) face a difficult second half, however, starting this week with a non-conference battle against No. 2 Gateway before a Northern Eight Conference clash Oct. 12 against Central Catholic.
But others have also received impressive grades at the midpoint of the season.
Seneca Valley (3-1, 4-1) has come on strong and is making a run at a solid postseason position. The Raiders fell to North Allegheny in the third week of the season but pounded a good Central Catholic team last week, 34-7, to climb into the rankings at No. 5.
North Hills (2-1, 4-1), meanwhile, is in good position to return to postseason play after sitting out last season for the first time since 1998, but still has Seneca Valley and North Allegheny looming on its schedule. Improved Butler, at 2-3 in the conference and overall, is battling for that fifth playoff spot in the conference.
Mars Area emerged in the first week of the season as a team to beat in Class AAA and hasn't lost a beat. The Planets opened the season with a victory against preseason No. 1 Franklin Regional and have been a mainstay at No. 3 in the rankings. The Planets (5-0) step out of Greater Allegheny Conference play this week for a game against Uniontown, but return for a showdown with rival Knoch Oct. 12 before closing against Hampton Oct. 26.
Knoch, which advanced to the WPIAL title game last season and finished with a 12-1 record, and Hampton share 3-1 records in the conference with Franklin Regional and Hollidaysburg, but the Knights (4-1) have Franklin Regional Friday, while Hampton (4-1) takes on Hollidaysburg.
In the Class AA Allegheny Conference, Freeport (4-1) and Shady Side Academy (3-2) tied for the top spot in the conference last season at 6-0 and are once again poised for postseason play. Freeport has its toughest remaining game Friday when it travels to Burrell (5-0, 4-0), while Shady Side's most difficult test appears to be Kittanning (2-3, 2-2) in the final game of the season.
You can toss any number of schools into the Class A Eastern Conference hat and pull out the order of finish. Northgate is currently the leader at 4-0, 4-1 overall, but North Catholic (4-1, 4-1), Apollo-Ridge (3-2, 3-1), Avonworth (3-2, 3-1) and Springdale (3-2, 3-1) are only one week removed from sharing the top spot. North Catholic takes on Avonworth this week, while Northgate closes the season against Apollo-Ridge, Springdale and Avonworth.
No. 1 North Allegheny and No. 2 Gateway have owned the top two spots in the Post-Gazette's Class AAAA rankings the entire season and collide Friday night in a roll-up-the-sleeves non-conference battle at Gateway's Antimarino Stadium. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.
The Tigers defense, which has allowed just 27 points this season, will be put to the test as Gateway's Thomas Woodson is one of the top quarterbacks in the WPIAL. Woodson, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior, has completed 39 of 61 passes this season for 963 yards -- fourth best in the WPIAL -- with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions.
In a battle of winless teams in the Northern Eight Conference last week, Fox Chapel got a big game from running back Carrington Vaughn to roll past Shaler Area, 49-14, to hand second-year coach Eric Ravotti his first win of the season. Vaughn, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound sophomore, rushed for 105 yards on 10 carries and scored three touchdowns.
The Foxes (1-4, 1-3) travel to North Hills Friday night, while Shaler (0-5, 0-4) travels to Seneca Valley.
Rick Davis: email@example.com or 412-263-3789