Ridaught: FHSAA out with new, in with old

The Bradford Tornadoes finished second in Class 2S (left) and the Hawthorne Hornets took home their second straight Class 1R state championship.
The Bradford Tornadoes finished second in Class 2S (left) and the Hawthorne Hornets took home their second straight Class 1R state championship.
Branford photo by Marty Pallman/Hawthorne photo by C.J. Gish

If you think the title is confusing, go back and watch Tuesday’s Florida High School Athletic Association Board of Directors emergency meeting.

The FHSAA Board voted 9-4 to get rid of the Suburban-Metro playoff system, which was just implemented two years ago, and go back to an eight-classification format, 1A-7A, plus rural, which is based on enrollment. The board also voted 9-4 to require schools to play district games.

But the purpose of the meeting didn’t seem to be cut and dry.

“The meeting on Tuesday seemed all over the place in trying to understand what the final goal would be,” said Joshua Wilson, founder and publisher of FloridaHSFootball.com. “Most believed they would be coming into vote for the open division (putting the top eight teams into their own playoff bracket), which was tabled, and instead we were left with a lot more questions than when the meeting started.”

It was a mess. One board member called it “rushed” and “disorganized.”

“A lot of coaches I have spoken to are not happy with the FHSAA and feel they were not heard at all and called the meeting rushed and disorganized,” Wilson said. “Honestly, the publicity for the FHSAA coming out of the meeting is some of the most negative I have heard in several years. I do not feel we are done with the issue surrounding classifications.”

It seemed as if we were headed in the right direction with the previous format. There were a lot of competitive games in the state playoffs. In fact, of the nine state championship games, four were one-score games.

It was met with mixed feelings.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the decision was made,” said Bradford coach Jamie Rodgers, whose team lost to Cocoa, 20-6, in the 2S state title game. “I thought the last two years had become very competitive with some new-found rivalries statewide. Teams from the metro areas have a distinct advantage when it comes to the open enrollment rules in Florida in my opinion.”

Rodgers said he felt like going back to the way it was before does away with the progress that was made over the last two years.

“The major concern is this, before the split you could look at the eight classifications before the season and pretty much know who was going to win the state championship,” he said. “That’s not a good product in my opinion. The last two years have seen multiple teams make it to the state title game that had not been in many years or ever at all. Teams in our area will be upset with the decision. Teams in metro areas will be happy with it.”

In 2021, Buchholz had to travel to nationally ranked St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) for a state semifinal game. However, under the previous format the past two years they’ve had competitive Class 4S state semifinal games against Venice and Lakeland.

“I wish the FHSAA would have continued using the Metro-Suburban playoff system,” said Buchholz coach Chuck Bell, whose team lost by one point to eventual state champion Lakeland on Dec. 1. “The system was designed to provide more competitiveness in the playoffs and the statistics prove that the system worked. In the two years of Metro-Suburban playoffs, the percentage of playoff games resulting in a running clock dropped by almost 33% and the percentage of playoff games decided by one score or less almost doubled.”

Bell doesn’t feel like changing things was justified.

“Unfortunately, during the haphazard FHSAA meeting held to vote on the playoff process last Tuesday, no data was presented for why the Metro-Suburban playoff system did not work,” he said. “I’m in favor of making changes when there is evidence for why the change is needed and that the change being made will actually solve the problem, in this case neither happened.”

Bell noted that whoever wins the region championship, which Buchholz has done in three straight seasons, will then likely face a team like St. Thomas Aquinas in the state semifinals, instead of a more comparable team like Lakeland or Venice.

Gainesville Athletics Director Phillip Knight, whose team competed in Class 3S, was “fine with the decision.”

“I don’t know that any system is going to be ideal for everyone, but this system has worked well for many years,” he said. “For those of us that have been around a while, it seems like it wouldn’t be a true state championship if eight of our counties play in a different classification. For us, the road to a state championship has always run through Jacksonville, followed by a game against Orlando/Tampa area teams and then a South Florida team. It would be hard to compare a state championship of that magnitude to one where we didn’t play any teams from those areas.”

Hawthorne, which won its second straight state title in Class 1R, will likely remain rural, which will be determined by the 32 lowest populated schools.

“Honestly, I do not care either way how this lands,” said Hawthorne Athletics Director and defensive coordinator Dustin Adkins. “We were successful both before and during the Metro-Suburban split.”

Adkins noted that he wasn’t sure if Hawthorne would move up or not because its enrollment numbers will still be close to, if not under, the 32 rural schools.

“Regardless of the changes implemented by the FHSAA, Hawthorne will continue to field a strong, annual playoff contender as long as our coaches remain and our players stay committed to the yearly goals we set forth,” he said. “We welcome all challenges that we are faced with, and we will adapt to whatever we may need to adapt too.

Robby Pruitt, who led Williston to its second straight unbeaten regular season before losing to Hawthorne in the 1R-Region 4 Final, is “not sure what’s going on” with other 1R programs like Newberry and Hawthorne.

“From my understanding, Newberry will not be in rural with 662 students,” he said. “They weren’t really rural in the last class. Hawthorne will stay rural. They only had 281 students, so they are in no danger of moving up.”

Pruitt said he is uncertain where Williston falls at the moment.

“We are on the bubble,” he said. “We could go either way. I think for Williston it will depend on what some of the schools that are rural but have gone with the SSAA in the past do.”

The FHSAA Board of Directors is set to meet again in February. However, the goal for the FHSAA is to assign districts by Christmas to allow schools plenty of time to begin scheduling games for the 2024 school year.

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