BY PAUL A REID
MONTEGO BAY, St James -- After five weeks of competition, the top teams have separated themselves from the crowd and the race for the Ben Francis KnockOut and daCosta Cup titles will step up several notches.
The Ben Francis KO kicks off tomorrow with seven games.
Thirty-two schools from the 80 that started the ISSA/LIME competition on a rainy afternoon on September 7 at the Montego Bay Sports Complex survived the first round, including four first-timers in Green Pond High, Green Island, Muschett High, and BB Coke High.
As icing on the cake, Green Pond not only advanced, but beat two former champions, in Cornwall College and St James High, in back-to-back games and won Zone A to take their place in the Ben Francis KO and will meet Zone C winners William Knibb in the first round.
Also, a number of teams are returning after a long period of absence, led by former champions Vere Technical, who are back after a 12-years absence, while Brimmervale are advancing for the first time since the 2007 season.
At the other end of the spectrum there were disappointments for a number of teams that were fancied to advance at the start of the season, including 11-time champions Cornwall College, last season's semi-finalists Manning's School, Bellefield High, and Titchfield High, among others.
Two losses to St James High, including the first round encounter that they dominated and a defeat to Green Pond, dashed Cornwall's hopes. The inclusion of several players from the all-conquering Under-16 team that won four titles including the all-island crown, beating Corporate Area champions Wolmer's Boys' 7-0, had boosted Cornwall's stocks, but they failed to deliver when it mattered most, despite scoring 12 goals in two games as they fought desperately to get back into contention.
After the disappointment of not taking one of the two automatic places from Zone B, Frome Technical got a life line after they advanced as one of two best third-placed teams with an average of 2.0, calculated from scoring 16 points in eight games.
The next best third-placed team is to be decided between Holmwood Technical and Edwin Allen High.
As they have done the two previous seasons, St Elizabeth Technical (STETHS) set themselves up as title favourites. The Omar Wedderburn-coached team, that lost in extra time in the final last season and have won the Ben Francis KO the last three seasons, have scored 49 goals so far this season in 10 games played in Zone E.
Led by the competition's top scorer Khesanio Hall, who has scored 22 times and has found the back of the net in every game he has played so far, STETHS appears on a path to at least make it to the top four.
The team tally of 49 goals is the second most scored in the first round by the former champions in the last four seasons, and is topped only by the 68 achieved by the Brian Brown-led Rusea's team in 2011, their own 64 that same year and 55 scored by Clarendon College.
The 2010 Manchester High team also scored 49 goals in the first round.
Also this season, Munro College, runners-up in Zone E and Zone O winners Paul Bogle High, have both scored 31 goals while, with a game to go, Cedric Titus had scored 29, Marcus Garvey Technical 26, and St Mary Technical 25.
Four schools including Holland High, who got their first goal of the season in Saturday's final game against Herbert Morrison, managed just one goal, while another 13 scored five or less goals.
Meanwhile, the qualifiers for the Ben Francis KO are Green Pond High, Rusea's High, William Knibb Memorial, Godfrey Stewart, STETHS, Manchester High, Christiana High, Clarendon College, St Mary Technical, Dinthill Technical, Port Antonio, Glenmuir High, Kemps Hill, and Paul Bogle High.
Inter-Zone qualifiers are St James High, Green Island High, Frome Technical, Muschett High, Grange Hill High, Munro College, BB Coke High, Spalding High, Lennon High, Marcus Garvey Technical, Cedric Titus High, Brimmervale High, Bog Walk High, Happy Grove, Garvey Maceo
High, Vere Technical, and
St Thomas Technical.