By STEVE JACKSON
That perennial favorite has finally rolled around again with its screaming cheerleaders, blaring bands, demonstrative fans, nervous coaches and enthusiastic players! Yes, high school football is back for another fall in the South Shore.
The overhead lights will be flashing all over the USA on Friday nights for at least 12 weeks. It all commences in the southeastern corner of Hillsborough County Aug. 18 with a slate of exhibition Kick Off Classic gridiron matches involving the five South Shore high school football squads. The KOC (Kick Off Classics) are statewide, but the scores and stats do not count in season records and will not be considered when teams are selected for post-season play. According to the FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association), these pre-season Aug. 18 opening games are “funsies” or exhibition games. Coaches are encouraged to play everyone on the squad, including junior varsity players if they care to. High schools are permitted to charge for admission, and the FHSAA gets a percentage of the take.
The regular high school varsity season opens Aug. 25 and runs through Nov. 3. Following unpredictable outcomes along with some anticipated victories, the post-season playoffs run to district-title rooms, and state championships continue for the winners.
Among the combatants on this first Friday evening, Aug. 18, at 7:30 p.m. are the two leading pre-season powers in the South Shore, the East Bay Indians hosting the Sumner Stingrays.
Under the leadership of veteran head coach Mike Gottman and a corps of excellent now-graduated 26 seniors, the Indians compiled a 10-2 mark last season, including an opening playoff round 14-12 win over Osceola before elimination, dropping the next game to Largo High. Now the Indians will get an idea of just how good they will be this season when the powerful Sumner Stingrays roll into the EB stadium on Big Ben Road Aug. 18. Sumner went 8-3 last season including a first round playoff loss to Plant High of Tampa. The Stingrays return fantastic quarterback and defensive back Greg Smith III for his senior year. (See article on Sumner High football elsewhere in this week’s Observer News print and digital.)
Following the KOC, East Bay opens for real Aug. 25 at home versus a 6-4 2022 team, Middleton High of Tampa. The EB offense welcomes back stocky senior Jaelin Snead at running back and rookie junior William Boyd at quarterback in the Indians third season under Coach Gottman.
Riverview High Sharks host the Spoto Spartans for the KOC this Friday. Sharks head coach Tony Rodriquez turned in a respectable 5-5 mark in his rookie season at Riverview after replacing Coach William Mosel, whose Riverview team dipped to 2-8 in 2021.
Riverview stays home for the regular season opener against weak cupcake Brandon High on Aug. 25. Then the Sharks travel to Tampa two consecutive weeks for match-ups Riverview is favored to win, facing Freedom High Sept. 1 and Chamberlain High Sept. 8. The schedule gets very difficult after that with powerhouse East Bay making the short trip to Riverside Sept. 14, prior to a stretch of three tough foes on the road for the Sharks. Riverview returns senior stalwart running back Dontarius “Rico” Shoats, who is expected to spearhead the Sharks rushing attack.
Lennard High Longhorns have brought in a new head coach in an effort to get back to its last winning season of 7-4 in 2019 by former head coach Matt Kitchie, now the new athletic director at South East High near Bradenton. The new coach at Lennard is Karnigas “KB” Belton. Coach Belton looks to improve Lennard’s dismal 1-9 mark from last season but has a challenging rebuilding job in Ruskin. Braden River comes north for the KOC versus Lennard Aug. 18, when Coach Belton will see his squad play against opponents for the first time. The Horns open the regular season Aug. 25 against Hillsborough High in Tampa. Two homes games in Ruskin against Robinson High and Middleton High are on tap for Sept. 1 and Sept. 8 under the lights.
The smallest high school in the five-team South Shore squad is Spoto High. The Spartans, under Spoto head coach Keith Chattin, are looking to improve on last season’s 4-6 mark after its opening exhibition KOC game Aug. 18 at the Riverview Sharks. Coach Chattin, in his second season at Spoto, is a veteran coach who led Lennard to two excellent records in 2014 and 2015 at 8-3 and 7-4.
Spoto faces a rough opening with games against three winning foes from the 2022 campaign. Spoto hosts Robinson High Aug. 25, and Strawberry Crest of Dover comes to Spoto Sept. 1. The Spartans then have a huge challenge in Tampa, Sept. 8, versus the Alonso Ravens before returning to Tampa against a beatable King High Sept. 14. An open date for Spoto follows before formidable East Bay visits Spoto Sept. 22. Spoto fans are expecting to see more sparkling offense from fleet-footed Z’orey Cotton, a junior who lit up the opposition in a sensational 2022 season.
Now In 2nd Season
FHSAA reclassified its teams with the new model in place for the 2022 and 2023 seasons. The major difference is that Florida’s high school classifications are no longer listed as 8A-1A, but rather divided into two major separate groups: Metro and Suburban.
The Metro classifications include teams from eight of the most populated counties in the state (Broward, Dade, Duval, Hillsborough, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas and Seminole), while Suburban includes the remaining counties. Those teams are further divided into four classifications, from Nos. 4-1, with the largest schools, according to enrollment numbers, being placed in 4M/S, trickling down to the smallest in 1M/S.
In addition to those two, there is an additional classification called “Rural,” but it has only one classification, 1R. Class 1R does not change from the previous 1A-Rural classification a year ago.
In all, there are nine classifications, meaning the FHSAA will crown nine Florida teams as state champions later this year.
The complete list of new FHSAA high school classifications is as follows: 4M, 3M, 2M, 1M; 4S, 3S, 2S, 1S; and 1R.
There are no FHSAA restrictions on which Florida teams can play each other during the regular season. For example, a 1M team can play against a 4S team, a 3S team against one from 1S, a 2M against a 4M and so on.
Regardless of the Florida high school FHSAA classifications – whether it’s Metro, Suburban, or a matchup between teams from each – the tough competition week in and week out is not going anywhere, meaning we are again set for some can’t-miss games this fall, according to the FHSAA.
In addition to the FHSAA, Florida high school football includes the Sunshine Athletic Conference, the Independents (most notably IMG Academy in Bradenton, which sports three different teams), and the 8-Man Division.
Incidentally, the world-renowned IMG Academy has recently been purchased by a Chinese equity company, BPEA EQT, for $1.25 billion.