With a non-divisional game for each team now finished, the Class A South gauntlet begins Friday night for Southern and Toms River South when the Rams welcome the Indians in their home opener.

This is uncharted territory for the current Southern group, which is the first Rams team to enter a season as a defending division champion since 1973. No Southern team has ever won back-to-back division crowns, and if it’s going to happen, it has to start Friday night against an improved Indians team. Shore Sports Network will have all the action live on 105.7 The Hawk and 1160/1310 AM in a game that kicks off at 7 p.m.

“I don’t think there’s a soft touch in the division that I’ve seen,’’ said Southern coach Chuck Donohue Sr. “We told them last year at the banquet that the mentality has to change. You're no longer the hunter, you're the hunted. If you think you're going to let down and be successful, you’re wrong. We have enough senior leadership that there hasn't been any talk about that.’’

Southern is coming off a lightning-shortened, 28-0 nondivisional win over Freehold Township, while Toms River South dropped a 29-26 heart-breaker to Central on a last-second field goal. The Rams were hit by a wave of injuries in the offseason and preseason and are doing their best to get healthy as the schedule only gets harder.

Their senior quarterback, Dan Higgins, separated his throwing shoulder in the team’s second scrimmage and was expected to miss the opener, but he made a recovery in time to take the field against Freehold Township. The Rams initially thought that star junior wideout Mike Gesicki was going to have to play quarterback, but Higgins was healthy enough to throw two touchdown passes against Freehold Township, including one to Gesicki.

“We limited (Higgins’) throws all Labor Day weekend and didn’t have him throw downfield in practice until Wednesday (before the game),’’ Donohue said. “We still can’t run him (because of the shoulder).’’

The other good news for the Rams this week is that they return 195-pound junior running back Grant Bissey, who is back after undergoing knee surgery in the summer. Bissey gives Southern more of a battering ram back to complement tailback Abe Gonzalez.

The Rams also had three of their four starters in the secondary out to start the season and hope to get healthier in that area. Senior Kevin Barreau, also a star wideout, is out for the season with a knee injury, but senior Richie Weisz, a three-year starter at cornerback, is expected to return this season around Week Six for the Lacey game after suffering a broken leg.

The secondary, which also includes Gesicki at safety and senior Nick Hem, will be tested by an explosive group of skill players at Toms River South. The Indians, who went 3-7 last season in their first year under coach Ron Signorino Jr., are continuing their rebuilding process with a group of players who can score from all over the field. The Indians scored 13 points combined in their first four games last year, but registered 26 on opening night this year.

"Offensively, it was nice to come out of the gate light that after we struggled so badly last year in putting points up,'' Signorino Jr. said. "We've said all along that we feel good about our playmakers, and the kids have really bought into what we're doing. They can be an exciting group to watch.''

They showed it last week against Central, when sophomore Khaleel Green erupted for a career-high 154 yards and two touchdowns rushing on only 14 carries, including a 77-yard touchdown run. Senior Robert Hailey hauled in a 47-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Trevor Signorino, the son of the head coach, and even backup quarterback Tymere Berry unloaded a 57-yard bomb for a touchdown to Tommy Venler when Signorino cramped up. Darius Hart, Otis Kearney and Russell Messler are three juniors who also can make plays.

“That's our biggest concern going in – we can't simulate the speed on the practice field that they have,’’ Donohue said. “From what I've seen, they have legitimate speed.’’

Southern is the clear favorite and a consensus Top 10 team in the Shore Conference, so the pressure is all on the Rams. This is the first of seven straight division games, so Southern looks to set the tone on Friday night.

“We told the kids that everything now is for the division, and if it means something to you, you'll practice differently,’’ Donohue said. “One slip-up could cost you the whole season for any team in the division.’’

Toms River South is trying to recover from the gut punch against Central to face a formidable opponent.

"Friday night, particularly right after the game, was very difficult,'' Signorino Jr. said. "We did take a positive from it because much of our players were visibly upset, which to me is growth. It's going to be a character test for us to see if we're resilient enough to bounce back.''

As Toms River South recovers from the ashes of a winless season in 2010 to make a return to its former glory, it faces a program that is at the level the Indians want to reach.

"Chuck Donohue has done such a great job in building that program,'' Signorino Jr. said. "They just keep rolling out good team after good team. That's where we want to get to. We don't want to put out a football team. We want to put out a football program.''