In a normal year, every Osceola County high school football team dreams of a successful regular season followed by a playoff run. But 2020 is anything but normal.
Before local teams begin regular season play Friday night – six weeks later than normal because of COVID-19 coaches and athletic directors had to make an important decision as to whether they would even compete for a spot in the state playoff series.
The Florida High School Activities Association, the governing body for high school sports, announced several months ago that when football resumed, the playoff schedule would basically remain the same – with state final games scheduled for mid-December.
In addition, the FHSAA announced that every team that wanted to partake in the playoffs would automatically qualify but had to “opt in” to the state series by last Friday. And while the idea that every team making the playoffs may seem like a “no-brainer”, it was actually a much more complex decision for the schools – especially the ones in Osceola County.
Under the policy that was adopted by the FHSAA, all schools were permitted to schedule and play a full 10- game schedule in 2020. But due to the late start of school because of Covid, it would have been impossible to complete a 10-game regular season schedule and be done in time for the playoffs.
The issue was further complicated because Osceola County determined schools could not start playing games until Sept. 25 – in some cases two full weeks after many teams in other Florida counties were able to start.
And while nothing prohibited teams eliminated in the early rounds of the playoffs from scheduling additional regular season games, matching up schedules and adding games without knowing for sure when a school would be eliminated from the playoffs created a scheduling nightmare.
At the end of the day, only three of Osceola’s eight public schools – Osceola, St. Cloud and Tohopekaliga – elected to participate in the post-season playoffs; while Harmony, Celebration, Poinciana, Liberty and Gateway elected to forego participating in the playoff series.
“It was really a no-brainer for us,” Osceola Head Coach Doug Nichols, who has led his team to the playoffs in all 10 of his previous seasons, said. “In doing so, we understand we may not be able to play as many regular season games as teams that opt out, but that isn’t really a concern. Our goal every season is to compete for a state championship and we are unified in that decision,” Nichols said.
St. Cloud Head Coach Bryan Smart said it was a difficult decision where he and school administrators debated the issue back and forth.
“We were 100 percent going to opt out and try to schedule 10 regular season games to try to make the year as normal as possible for our seniors,” Smart said. “But the problem was finding enough opponents that had mutual open dates. Because we couldn’t find 10 games, we then decided to opt back in to the state playoff system.”
Smart added that the decision to remain in the state playoffs was cemented when the Bulldogs reached agreement with both Tohopekaliga and Harmony to play regular season games in December. “We consider both of those opponents to be important rivalry games for our kids and when we were able to find mutually agreeable dates in December, it made the decision easier.”
Toho head coach Mark Deas, whose team finished 7-4 last season, said the Tigers were also looking to opt out, but also found problems in trying to schedule additional games and decided to remain in the state series.
“We were able to get regular season games scheduled both before the playoffs and after. Playing regular season games after the playoffs will be a little weird, but everyone is having to adjust to this new reality,” Deas said.
For teams like Liberty, Poinciana and Gateway the automatic berth into the playoffs was not enough of an incentive to get them to “optin” to the state series.
“We don’t really have the numbers to compete against a quality playoff team, plus I have a really young team this year,” Gateway Coach Marlin Roberts said of his team that is coming off a 0-10 season. “I think this decision to opt out was the right one to make for our program. I have been able to schedule some teams that I think we can compete with while playing a full regular season.”
Liberty head coach Brandon Pennington agreed.
“By opting out, we were given an extra month to schedule games – games were we have a chance to be competitive. Our original schedule was brutal and frankly we were biting off more than we probably could chew. Now it’s a little more balanced but we are still playing some great teams like Osceola and Lake Gibson,” Pennington said. Some of our kids, especially our seniors, were disappointed they would not be participating in the playoffs but I really didn’t want our school’s first playoff appearance in history to be in a year where everyone got in automatically.”
Both Harmony and Celebration have opted out, but both reported that they have been able to schedule the full complement of 10 regular season games.
“For us the decision was not hard,” Harmony head coach Don Simon said.