EARLY - Two teams that could be hoisting state championship trophies in December will clash on the final Friday in August as the No. 3 Early Longhorns visit the No. 1 Cisco Loboes in Class 2A’s statewide game of the week. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m.

Early and Cisco are squaring off in the season opener for the fifth consecutive year, and have developed quite the rivalry in that time. Though Early has won just once in the series - 32-20 in 2006 - the last three games all have been decided by a dozen points or less.

“Our kids have played them in the first game of the year now for quite a while,” said Early head coach Robbie Tindol. “Cisco is always a ranked team and our kids look forward to playing them. They’re familiar with the kids, we’re not that far from Cisco, and that’s turned it into a good little rivalry to open the season.”

The Longhorns (10-4 in 2007) are coming off their second trip to the Class 2A, Division I state semifinals in three seasons, while Cisco (14-1 in 2007) reached the Class 2A, Division II state semifinals a year ago.

The Loboes return six starters on both sides of the ball, while the Longhorns welcome back six offensive and four defensive starters. But a late addition to the Early roster could make a huge difference not only Friday night, but well into the postseason.

Kenny Vaccaro, a safety and skill position player on offense, joined the Longhorns prior to their second scrimmage after spending the last two-plus seasons on the Brownwood varsity roster. Vaccaro’s talent makes the Longhorns - who were already considered serious state championship contenders - even more dangerous, as he already has given a verbal commitment to the University of Texas.

“Kenny’s going to be on the field quite a bit for us,” Tindol said. “He’s going to start at safety and he’ll be in the backfield some and at receiver some, plus he’ll return some kicks on special teams.

“He’s been with us now for a scrimmage and a couple weeks of practice. He’s going to start at safety, that’s what he’s familiar with, though there is still some teaching going on to get him on the same page with our secondary and understanding our play calls. Nothing out there is going to surprise him, he just needs to know our terminology.”

Actually, none of the Longhorns should be caught off guard by what the Loboes throw their way as often as they’ve played. Though Tindol and the coaching staff have a good idea of what to expect, stopping Cisco will be the hard part.

“Cisco runs the pro-I and they run the ball at you hard,” Tindol said. “They run some option and a little bit of misdirection, then they’ll throw the ball to try and keep you off guard.”

The most dangerous offensive weapons for the Loboes are quarterback Josh Bridges (1,500 yards passing, 950 yards rushing in 2007) and running back Robert Medina (1,300 yards, 19 touchdowns).

“They have a very capable quarterback that can throw the football and he’s also a great runner when he has it in his hands,” Tindol said. “They also have a lot of running backs they can run in and out, so we have to make sure we don’t let them loose.

“Our defense has a big challenge in front of them. We need to play stingy defense and build a prideful defense that plays with a lot of heart. The most important thing is everybody needs to hustle and fly to the football.”

Early counters with its own 1-2 punch on offense in quarterback Nick Lyle and running back Collin Rome. Lyle completed 48 percent of his passes for 2,168 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, while Rome rushed for 1,554 yards and 15 scores.

The Longhorns also have a pair of deep threats at receiver in Cody Bullard (34-548-5 TDs) and Seth Coolbaugh (26-426-5 TDs).

The concern for the Early offense is the line, which has been completely revamped. Sophomore Fred McKinney has the most experience, and two members of the unit - Chase Reeves and Lance Morris - were lined up in the backfield last season.

“We’d like to be able to run the ball, make yards on the ground and not put a lot of pressure on the passing game to catch us up,” Tindol said. “This is going to be a good test for our offensive linemen at this point in the season. This will teach them a lot about where they need to go from here. We’re not there yet. By no means have we peaked. It’s a learning process.”

Tindol feels Friday’s game could ultimately come down to which team makes the fewest first game mistakes, and avoids turnovers.

“We know we’re going to have some hiccups, but we want to keep the mistakes to a minimum,” Tindol said. “The biggest thing is going to be the turnovers. Against a team like Cisco, you can’t have very many turnovers or you’ll be fighting uphill.

“We expect our kids will be at the level they need to play. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, I want to see us executing and getting better.”

While the state rankings have added some sizzle to the game, the outcome will have no bearing on what the future holds for the Longhorns, as they proved last season. Despite an 0-3 start, Early was one game away from playing for a state championship thanks to a string of 10 victories in a row.

“The only thing that might be at stake is the ranking,” Tindol said. “And rankings don’t get you in the playoffs and don’t win you state championships.”