The state playoffs officially begin Nov. 8 with region quarterfinal action, though 12 area teams will begin their own tournament competition starting Friday.
The Sunshine State Athletic Conference’s newly-formed North Florida League – comprised of Baker, Blountstown, Cottondale, Franklin County, Graceville, Holmes County, Jefferson County, Liberty County, Port St. Joe, Sneads, Vernon, and Wewahitchka – will hold its first Sunshine State North Florida Championship tournament over the next three weeks culminating with a title game Nov. 2 at Tommy Oliver Stadium.
Coaches from the schools voted Saturday to determine seeding, with the top eight to compete for the North Florida Championship and the bottom four to play a round-robin for what is being called the North Florida Series Championship.
There will also be a Big Bend Brawl for the four losers of the first round of the Championship tournament as a sort of consolation championship that will also be played at Tommy Oliver Stadium on Nov. 2 before the Championship final.
“We’re excited about it,” Sneads coach Bill Thomas said of the event. “It gives us a way to crown a champion of what we call true rural schools: on
e school, one town. I think the SSAC is what the original rural league was built to do.”
Sneads (7-0) is seeded No. 3 and will play host to Port St. Joe (3-4) in its first round matchup, with the winner to face the winner of the No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchup between Baker (7-0) and Jefferson County (1-6).
On the other half of the bracket, No. 2 Blountstown (7-0) opens with No. 7 Cottondale (2-5) and No. 4 Grac
eville (5-2) takes on No. 5 Vernon (5-2). All games are hosted by the higher seed.
Each of the bottom four teams – Holmes County (2-5), Wewahitchka (2-5), Franklin County (2-5), and Liberty
County (1-6) – will play one game against each of the other three teams, with head-to-head serving as the first-place tiebreaker.
Blountstown coach Beau Johnson said he was happy about the new league and playoff because it can capture some of the regular season excitement lost with the elimination of districts from Classes 1A-4A, while also providing some much-needed revenue with a 60/40 home/away split for the gate of all playoff games.
As for the games themselves, Johnson said it doesn’t change much in regard to how he practices and prepares his team during the season.
“Around here the most important game is always the next game and then the next game after that. We try to take it one game at a time,” he said. “But the townspeople are excited about it and the kids are excite
d about it and that’s what matters most.”
Graceville coach Barry Gardner said he likes that the playoff adds meaning to the regular season but that he’s not as excited about not knowing who the next opponent is until the week of the game. He’s also a bit wary of potentially playing a team three times in a season, as is possible with his Tigers and Vernon, who faced off just two weeks ago.
That’s really the only thing I don’t like about it,” Gardner said. “But that’s a part of it. It is what it is. But I like the idea of it. I just wish we could know who we were playing a little sooner. It’s not really anybody’s fault. That’s just part of it.”
Yellowjackets coach Gerald Tranquille had a different take on the uncertainty of the schedule, citing it as a good primer for what they’ll experience should they make the state playoffs.
“You can get a sense of a playoff atmosphere and playoff preparation, and you can kind of get to see where you stack up before you get to the playoffs,” he said. “I know the guys are excited to play some teams that are not on our schedule and see how we stack up.”
The opportunity to become the first SSAC North Florida Champion is also something that Tranquille said is highly motivating for his players.
“Any time you have a chance to do something that’s a first, you would love to be the one to put your name in the history books in the first year doing it,” he said. “We would love the opportunity to play in that Saturday night game in front of everybody and get t
o say we’re the best team in the North Florida League.”
The league could expand in the very near future, with Thomas saying that has heard from several other area schools about joining the league at the end of the 2020 schedule year and predicted that the 2021 SSAC North Florida League could feature 24 teams in East and West divisions and a four-week tournament.
“According to the guys at the head of the SSAC, they had a lot of input from other teams wanting to be in next time who said they couldn’t do it because of the scheduling,” Thomas said. “But there
are a lot of schools who would really like to join it.”
The field remains 12 teams for this year and next, and Thomas said he believes the new league and playoff will quickly become very popular with fans.
“I think it’s gonna be big,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a bigger gate in the championship game than they have in the championship of the FHSAA. I think people are excited about it. I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”