Early start, late finish.

That's one of the fundamental aspects of the South Jersey football season, which will start at 10:30 Thursday morning when Gloucester Catholic visits Holy Cross Academy in a West Jersey Football League crossover clash of non-public programs.

It's hard to know for sure, but there's reason to believe that game will mark the earliest kickoff in South Jersey history. In the old days, teams didn't even begin practice until Sept. 1. Imagine that in today's fast-paced, hyper-competitive sports world.

And even as the length of the season has gradually expanded at both ends, only a handful of teams in recent years have opened the so-called "Zero Week" — the weekend before Labor Day — and nobody has started as early as Aug. 30.

At 10:30 a.m., no less — a time mandated by the NJSIAA after the scheduled 3:45 p.m. kickoff was deemed dangerous because of concerns over the heat index.

But keep in mind that this weekend's flurry of early kickoffs, which will feature nearly 30 games, is only part of the big-picture story of the 2018 season. And only part of the prelude to the 2020 season, which is literally the endgame for the drastic changes in the sport.

This season will not end any later than recent seasons in strictly chronological terms. The last weekend of the season still will be the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend, which this year will be Friday, Nov. 30, and Saturday, Dec. 1.

But the season has expanded in this significant sense: That weekend will mark the debut of super-sectionals, or "Bowl Games," which will mark the NJSIAA's first expansion of the state tournament in football since it broadened the playoff fields from four to eight teams in 2003.

Under the new format, sectional champions will continue their seasons for another week. The South Jersey Group 1 champion will meet the Central Jersey Group 1 champion. The South Jersey Group 2 champion will meet the Central Jersey Group 2 champion, and so on, with 10 games set to finalize the campaign in glorified exhibition games whose main purpose is to set the stage for more changes in the near future.

Maybe the games will be good. Maybe we'll see hard-hitting, intense football between teams that otherwise would only have competed in the imaginations of their fans and other observers.

“What are you playing for? If you win, what do you win? But if you lose, it makes what has been a championship season go out on a bad note.” — Paulsboro coach Glenn Howard

Some South Jersey coaches have their doubts. Delsea's Sal Marchese Jr., whose team won has won five of the last six South Jersey Group 3 titles, and Paulsboro's Glenn Howard, whose team has won three of the last four South Jersey Group 1 titles, have adamant in their opposition to the notion of playing another game after the sectional championship.

Paulsboro coach Glenn Howard (right) is no fan of the new playoff system.
Chip Fox/Staff photographer
Paulsboro coach Glenn Howard (right) is no fan of the new playoff system.

"What are you playing for?" Howard wondered. "If you win, what do you win? But if you lose, it makes what has been a championship season go out on a bad note."

Marchese expressed doubts about the ability of athletes and coaches to regain their focus after celebrating what traditionally has been the culmination of the season, the sectional finals. That's a common concern among basketball coaches with regard to the Tournament of Champions after the excitement of winning a state title, with a couple of key differences.

One, the T of C, as its name states, is a tournament. There is a progression to the final winner. Each game has meaning. The "Bowl Games" lead to nothing.

Two, football is a much more physically risky sport than basketball, and some coaches have expressed misgivings about sending players who are less than fully focused on the field.

There are two sides to this argument. Shawnee's Tim Gushue, whose team has won three South Jersey Group 4 championships since 2013, is among those coaches in support of the new format, both because of the intriguing aspect of the "Bowl Games" themselves and because of the thing the super-sectionals truly represent — an interim step to the first state championships in public school football in New Jersey history.

Gushue and lots of other football coaches around the state don't understand why New Jersey is one of the handful of states in the country that doesn't crown public-school football champions. Or why the NJSIAA has state championship in every other sport. Or why the NJSIAA offers state championship for non-public football but not public football.

Shawnee coach Tim Gushue said he likes the new playoff format.
AKIRA SUWA
Shawnee coach Tim Gushue said he likes the new playoff format.

They have great points. New Jersey should follow the lead of other states and allow public-school football players to compete for the ultimate prize, a state championship.

That's really what these next two seasons are about, setting the stage for another vote of the NJSIAA's general membership in December of 2019 to allow the organization to stage public-school championships. The "Bowl Games" are designed, in part, to ease the membership's concern about the drastic extension of the season — since now the sport will be halfway there.

One of the by-products of these ground-shifting changes in the sport is this season's early start, the better to account for the fact that the playoffs will begin a week sooner than in the past, and the sectional title games now will be held on the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Those games also will be held at the site of the higher-seed team, meaning that what has become a great new tradition in South Jersey football — that two-day, six-game extravaganza at Rowan University, which was such a boon to fans (and, selfishly, media members) who wanted to see multiple sectional finals — has been lost in the name of progress.

Change is the overarching theme of this season. Thanksgiving's traditional place of prominence in the sport, which has been gradually giving way over the last few decades, will be further marginalized as more teams decide to move those historic games to another weekend.

This year, Pennsville will play Penns Grove in the annual battle for the Norm "Wildman" Willey Boot on Thursday night under the lights at the Eagles' stadium. That's exactly 12 weeks ahead of the traditional date of the rivalry on Thanksgiving Day.

West Deptford and Paulsboro have met on Thanksgiving weekend for more than three decades. This year, the Red Raiders will ride down Route 44 to face the Eagles on Friday night.

It's almost surreal, the thought of West Deptford and Paulsboro playing in a regular-season game before Labor Day. But it's part of the new reality of football in New Jersey, with a nearly full slate of competition before the opening of schools.

The early start also will lead to a later finish, with teams such as the Eagles and Red Raiders, among others, possibly making that long bus ride to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford for the first "Bowl Games" in the history of the sport.

It all begins under a steamy summer sun with a 10:30 a.m. kickoff Thursday morning in Delran.

If that seem like an early start, keep in mind: Things could soon be ending even later as well.

South Jersey football schedule

Thursday

Gloucester Catholic at Holy Cross, 10:30

Audubon vs. Collingswood at Haddon Twp., 4

Cherry Hill West at Cinnaminson, 6

Oakcrest at Buena, 6

Penns Grove at Pennsville, 6:30

Lenape at South Brunswick, 7

Pemberton at Absegami, 7

Riverside at Bordentown, 7

Mainland at Overbrook, 7

Pennsauken at Paul VI, 7

Friday

Salem vs. Conwell-Egan at Wildwood, 4

Holy Spirit at Mt. St. Joseph (Md.), 4

Sterling at Triton, 6

St. Peter's Prep at Millville, 6

Middle Twp. at Cumberland, 6

State College (Pa.) at St. Augustine, 6

Paulsboro at West Deptford, 7

Atlantic City at Egg Harbor, 7

Williamstown at Vineland, 7

Cedar Creek at Willingboro, 7

Woodrow Wilson at Winslow Twp., 7

Camden at Wise, Md., 7

Camden Catholic at Rancocas Valley, 7

Haddonfield at Pleasantville, 7

Long Branch at Hammonton, 7

Highland at Kingsway, 7

Saturday

St. Joseph vs. Hamden Hall (Conn.) at New Haven, noon

Timber Creek at Central Catholic of Toledo (Oh.), 2