For many high school programs, the season begins in earnest this week.

District play kicks off with a full slate of game in all classifications and teams begin the process of establishing themselves as playoff contenders.

Programs that might have lost their first two or three games of the season can brush off those losses now and get down to business. For most teams, the first couple of games of the season have no bearing on the postseason, since district records determine playoff seedings and those opening games are, in essence, preseason games that allow coaches to clean up problem areas before the real season begins.

“For us, Friday night represents the first step to getting back to being district champs at South Sumter,” said South Sumter coach Ty Lawrence.

The Raiders had a string of consecutive district championships snapped last year when they finished as the Class 4A-District 4 runners-up to Dunnellon. For many teams, finishing second in the district — which is good enough to earn a playoff berth — would be considered a successful season.

But in Bushnell, second place can sometimes feel like a disappointment. Besides, district runners-up are forced to play on the road in their first playoff game — in South Sumter’s case, away from Inman Sherman Field.

When that scenario presented itself last year, South Sumter was forced to travel north of Gainesville to Alachua and Santa Fe sent the Raiders home with a 26-0 loss, the Raiders first road playoff game in more than a decade.

And success in district play can soothe the pain that might have welled up during a tough non-district schedule. Last year, for example, South Lake struggled with a tough non-district schedule, but the Eagles played well enough in Class 5A-District 13 that they finished as district runners-up despite a 3-7 overall record.

District play also gives new coaches an opportunity to establish a winning mindset within their programs.

In Umatilla, Ryan Mills is trying to rebuild the football program there after it nearly died over the summer. With the Bulldogs set to play South Sumter in Bushnell Friday, Mills understands that a victory — or even a close loss — against the Raiders could be the spark that ignites his program.

“I’m approaching (Friday’s) game just as I have our first two games,” Mills said. “We’re going to show up and play. If we have a chance to hit ‘em in the mouth, we’re going to do it. We won’t back down. Our goal is to win every week.

“The one change I might make is on the coaching end. If we have a situation like fourth-and-1 against a district opponent, I might try a field goal and get what points I could, rather than go for it on fourth down and try to keep a drive alive.”

Mount Dora coach Chris Stephenson, on the other hand, realizes the importance of his district opener against The Villages. Even though the Hurricanes will play three other district games in Class 4A-4, Stephenson knows Mount Dora has an uphill battle if it loses.

Even though there would still be seven games remaining on the schedule.

“We would have to beat South Sumter and Dunnellon to have a shot at the playoffs if we lose to The Villages,” Stephenson said. “That makes this game huge for us, even though it is our first district game. It would be very tough to beat (South Sumter and Dunnellon) in the same season. And I’m not sure we can advance to the playoffs with two district losses.

“(Friday’s) game is the most important game of the season for us so far.”