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Santa Fe and Newberry face off in annual rivalry game Friday

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This 2005 game marked the last time the Santa Fe Raiders defeated the Newberry Panthers in an intense rivalry that annually kicks off the local high school football season.  Bottom: Newberry’s rise to power was evidenced in their run to a state championship appearance against Pahokee High School in 2007.

The last time a former Newberry High School football coach took over the reins of the Santa Fe High School football program, the Raiders trounced the Panthers 23-8.  That was the 2000 season and newly-appointed Raider head coach Scott Pritchett rode the victory to a 7-3 year for Santa Fe.

This season, the storyline has set a similar stage as Santa Fe travels to Newberry Friday night, Sept. 2, for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff in Panther Stadium.  Former Newberry coach Tommy Keeler bid farewell to the Panthers after six seasons and a state championship appearance and now leads the Raiders into Panther Stadium against his former squad.

As if this annual rivalry game didn’t have enough storylines, Keeler’s former assistant at Newberry – Chris Baker – is now the head coach of the Panthers after returning from Trenton High School where he served as head coach for three years.

It’s no surprise the personnel involved in this Friday’s game have shared the same sidelines in the past.  The programs have been playing each other in the season opener since 1991 and only 12 miles of asphalt separate the two small schools.  The players involved in both schools have played area youth league football for years and know each other a little better than the average opponent.  Personnel mingling and new head coaches in each program are bound to cross paths in the northwest rural area of Alachua County.

“The only time I’ve ever been on that other sideline [visitor’s sideline at Panther Stadium] was for an intrasquad scrimmage,” said Keeler.  “So it’s going to be quite odd coming off a bus and going to the visitor’s sideline.

“[Newberry] was a young team last year, quite a few of those kids played for me last year so I know most of the team still.”

Baker, who posted a 7-3 mark with Trenton last season, is well aware of the storylines, but is pleased to be back in blue and gold.

“It’s very exciting. I’m happy to be back in Newberry,” explained Baker.  “I’ve lived here the whole time I was in Trenton, but it’s great to be back over here coaching this team.

“Regarding Coach Keeler, we’re used to playing each other. I think it’s going to be more emotional for him, but once the thing gets kicked off, I have a gut feeling things will smooth out to a normal game.”

Santa Fe has struggled over the last decade as each new Raider team after team tried to restore the program to its once prominent status highlighted by a pair of state titles in 1991 and 1994.  The closest a team has come was 2004 in which the Raiders posted a 7-5 record and reached the Class 3A regional semifinals.  Outside of the 2004 campaign, Santa Fe has produced subpar results including a 2-18 record over the last two seasons.

While Keeler may not be decreeing a state title run just yet, he has expectations for this year’s team to put Santa Fe football back on track and it starts against the Panthers.

“As always, we’re trying to treat it as another game,” said Keeler who takes over a team that posted a 1-9 mark a year ago.  “We’re well aware that it’s a big rivalry and a huge game for us.”

Newberry found recent success under the direction of Keeler.  He led the Panthers to a state runner-up finish in 2007 and his teams reached the playoffs three times in six years.  Baker was the defensive coordinator for the Panthers during its 2007 state championship appearance run, but now takes over a team that won just a pair of games last season.  He’s looking for a fresh start against the Raiders Friday night.

“I just think we’re going to have to come out and play very well,” explained Baker.  “I think they’re going to be pretty jacked up.  It’s a good test for us because it’s a bigger school. I want to see if we can clean up some of the mistakes from our preseason game.”

Santa Fe has come up on the short end of the rivalry game for the past five years as its current head coach led the Panthers to five consecutive victories over the Raiders.

“I think the motivation’s there,” said Keeler.  “The kids want it bad and the coaches want it bad.

“For a game like this you don’t have to get the kids hyped up, they’re pretty much ready to go.”

While the Raiders are trying to snap the streak, for Baker the challenge is just the opposite – extend the win mark to six consecutive.

“We’ve got to cut down on our mistakes,” said Baker.  “If we make too many mistakes Santa Fe is going to overpower us.

“Me and Coach Keeler are going to be great friends.  I’m going to pull for Coach Keeler every night but one.”

Undoubtedly that one night is this Friday.