With nine years in the books and offerings that have grown to include five different sports, the Sunshine State Athletic Conference — which includes three local schools — is eyeing more growth and excitement in 2017.
Among many goals of the FHSAA’s sweeping changes to its playoff and district formatting for football last fall was that of bringing some of the state’s many independent programs — or programs that compete outside of traditional state series competition — back into the fold.
The elimination of districts in Classes 1A-4A was championed as giving the smaller programs more autonomy over scheduling, with games against district rivals no longer mandated.
According to FloridaHSFootball.com, more than 30 independent schools have agreed to return to state series competition as of Dec. 14 — but while other independent conferences are reeling from departures, the Sunshine State Athletic Conference continues to gain momentum.
The SSAC, which includes local programs at Windermere Prep, Legacy Charter and Central Florida Christian Academy, suffered a net loss of just two programs this offseason, according to league president Stuart Weiss.
Seven total programs departed — though not all of those who departed did so to rejoin the state series — and five programs joined the independent league, giving the conference 30 members for its 2017 fall football season.
According to Weiss, who in six years as a coach and administrator for the league has seen it blossom from 12 teams to 30, the reason so many programs are content to stay put is simple: the conference offers a good product.
“Teams that compete here typically have a great, positive experience,” Weiss said, championing the league’s emphasis on sportsmanship and hospitality. “The games are competitive. You don’t tend to get a lot of that chippiness in the games, and it’s a really good, wholesome place to play.”
The league prides itself on providing parity — there has been a different varsity football champion in each of the conference’s nine seasons of competition — and on being a place where smaller programs who might struggle in state series play can be competitive.
Among those programs is CFCA.
“For us, at CFCA, it (competing in the state series) would not be feasible,” Eagles head coach Chris Cook said. “Our student population is so small, and the influx from year to year would make it really hard to be competitive year in and year out.”
Cook is readying for his second season as the Eagles’ head coach — and that fact, itself, is welcome news for a program that has seen four different head coaches in four years. The instability in the program has led to a drop in numbers for CFCA’s football program, with the Eagles dressing just 25 players this past fall.
In spite of that, and in spite of the lack of continuity in coaching philosophy, the Eagles have been able to compile a 19-12 record over the past three seasons.
That has made CFCA, along with Legacy and Windermere Prep, happy customers in the SSAC.
To maintain its competitive balance, the league only admits programs that would classify as Class 3A or lower if they were to compete in state series play. Its board also puts an emphasis on finding like-minded members who are going to respect the rules and run clean programs.
It also puts an emphasis on being responsive to its programs.
“We try to meet the needs of our members,” Weiss said. “Everything we’ve done has been at the request of our members.”
Strong feedback from its membership has led to the SSAC expanding beyond varsity football over the past few years.
The conference has 22 members in its middle school football league and has already added boys and girls basketball.
This spring, it will have its first season of beach volleyball and, in the 2017-18 school year, there are hopes of offering boys and girls soccer for its members.
The format the SSAC has chosen for basketball — one that will likely be mirrored for soccer — is one where schools can compete in the SSAC as well as in the state series, thanks to more scheduling flexibility as compared to a sport such as football.
As it did last winter, the SSAC will host a basketball tournament and crown a champion in January prior to the beginning of district tournaments for the state series.
The addition of beach volleyball has spurred a new level of excitement around the league, as it represents the first time that the sport — which is growing in popularity — has been offered in the state of Florida.
“Our response when we came out when we were going to have beach volleyball was probably the biggest response we’ve had for anything,” Weiss said. “It’s been widespread, and it’s been positive.”
In light of the FHSAA’s recent efforts to bring some of its independent members back into the state series fold, Weiss says that there is a perception that his league — which technically operates within the overriding governing system of the FHSAA — does not get along with the organization, but he says that is not the case.
“We’re pro-FHSAA — we think we’re what’s good about FHSAA,” Weiss said. “We’re just trying to offer something for our members.”
Going forward into the new year, Weiss says he and the other board members and commissioners within the league are excited to continue to grow the conference’s brand — and to possibly a crown a 10th unique champion at its annual Florida Bowl game in the fall.
“That’s parity,” Weiss said. “That means we’re doing something right.”