In two weeks, the focal point of Pinellas County football will be in Clearwater, where East Lake and Countryside High face off. The game has no relevance on postseason berths. After all, neither team is in the same district — or classification for that matter.
But few rivalries match the fear and loathing of East Lake-Countryside week, the six-day binge before the rumble between schools located a 15-minute drive apart. Fans post taunts and counter-taunts on message boards in a game played for neighborhood bragging rights. The outcome, at least in the past few years, also reverberates around the county football landscape for overall supremacy. So just how big is this game?
“Too big,” Eagles senior quarterback Pete DiNovo said.
This is a rivalry that is not rich in tradition. Countryside started playing football in 1979. East Lake began eight years later. The schools were consumed with other rivals for most of the past two decades. Countryside had Clearwater and Dunedin. East Lake always clashed with Tarpon Springs.
It was not until the past decade, when Countryside and East Lake were paired in the same district, that the intensity increased.
The demographics have not changed. But the success among those former rivals has. Clearwater and Dunedin have struggled in recent years. Tarpon Springs has put together a string of uneven seasons.
Meanwhile, Countryside and East Lake have stood out.
The Cougars have won 25 straight regular-season games dating to 2009. The Eagles have been to the playoffs the past three seasons. The two are the only public schools in the county that have played in a region final the past three seasons. And both have nearly knocked off state power Plant in the playoffs during that span.
“For the longest time East Lake was playing mostly Hillsborough County teams in their district, so it wasn’t as big a rival early on,” said Countryside coach Jared Davis, who played for the Cougars from 1998-2001. “I think that changed when Clearwater started a downward turn around 2001. Plus, East Lake was in the district at that time and we started playing for something more.”
Countryside currently has a stanglehold on the series, winning the past four meetings. But the games have been close.
Last year, East Lake had a chance to go ahead late but Artavis Scott dropped a pass that would have resulted in a touchdown.
“We seem to always win, but they are really good games,” Countryside senior defensive lineman Mike Love said. “If Artavis catches that pass, we probably lose that game. It was a classic, just like most are whenever we play. But even though we’re rivals, we’re still friends.”
Still, there is some banter that goes on whenever these rivals meet. Take last week’s photo shoot for this feature. Love and teammate Ryan Yates arrived first. DiNovo and Scott showed up 10 minutes later.
“Man, you guys are late. You guys must have had to do your makeup and hair. Typical East Lake,” Love quipped.
Later, DiNovo got a football out of his bag.
“I see you brought a football. Is that so we can intercept it just like last season?” Love said.
Scott interjected, saying he was going to play at defensive lineman this season.
“Really, we should just let you in so we can hit you,” Yates said.
“Better have someone fast enough that can,” Scott retorted.
The exchanges continued. While trying to come up with poses, Love suggested DiNovo lay on the ground.
“Then I’ll stomp you, which is pretty much what I’m going to do this season,” Love said.
DiNovo replied: “Mike’s not the smartest guy. That’s why he plays defensive end.”
“No, I play defensive end so I can sack guys like you,” Love countered.
Afterward, the players shook hands and talked about hanging out before the season started.
“We like to joke around, but we’re real tight off the field,” Love said. “But when it comes to that game, we both want to win real bad.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com.