East Lake-Palm Harbor U. rivalry trumps all others in Pinellas County (w/video)

Published August 24 2017

Die-hard fans, clad in blue, cheer for their beloved team on one side, often reaching high decibel levels in the process. • On the other side, a sea of maroon forms with devotees synchronizing chants and waving signs, intent on rankling the opposition.

The scene paints a portrait of perhaps the biggest high school football game in Pinellas County.

Except it is not the one familiar to most.

Move over, Tarpon Springs; East Lake's biggest rival these days is Palm Harbor University.

Friday night, these two teams renew their grudge match in the season opener hosted by the Hurricanes.

"This rivalry is bigger than I had ever imagined it would be," first-year PHU coach John Scargle said. "I love it, though. I think it is great for both programs and everyone involved. These rivalries are what makes high school football so great."

The numbers, at least in ticket sales, offer proof of the changing landscape in rivalries.

Pinellas County athletic director Al Bennett said about 2,500 tickets were sold for last year's season opener between East Lake and PHU, making it easily the most attended game in the county. Those numbers were even more impressive considering the game was delayed for nearly two hours due to heavy rain and lightning.

The Hurricanes bought 600 presale tickets —and they were the visiting team.

"I don't think I've ever seen numbers like that for an away team before," said Bennett, who was the principal at St. Petersburg High before taking over the county athletic director job last month.

By contrast, about 1,700 tickets were sold for last year's East Lake-Tarpon Springs game.

For roughly two decades, East Lake vs. Tarpon Springs was a rivalry without rival in the county. It consistently ranked as the highest-attended football game in the county every season, with crowds exceeding 3,000 thanks to loyal and rabid student sections (East Lake's Blue Crue and Tarpon Springs' Maroon Mob).

The shift in rivalries for the Eagles started two years ago.

In 2015, PHU went on a 99-yard drive, scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of a 14-10 victory. It was the first time the Hurricanes had knocked off East Lake.

Last year's game featured another dramatic finish. The Eagles got revenge, holding on to beat PHU 38-35. The Hurricanes rallied from a 35-7 deficit to tie the score but lost in the final minute because of a dropped pass on fourth down.

"Tarpon is always going to be a big rival, but I would say right now PHU is the bigger one because they've beaten us (once during) the last two years," East Lake defensive back Josh Bowers said.

The Eagles have won the past seven meetings against the Spongers.

Mike Lube is well-versed in the animosity between the schools. He played for Palm Harbor University in the late 1990s, was head coach at Tarpon Springs in 2015 and has been an assistant at East Lake the past two seasons.

He said the seeds for a growing rivalry between East Lake and PHU were planted years ago. Former East Lake coach Rob Jenkins took over the Hurricanes when the program debuted in 1996.

"Coach Jenkins basically brought the blueprint he had for East Lake to Palm Harbor," Lube said. "The plays were the same, even the weight room looked similar."

There were some big crowds back then, too.

Lube remembers one in particular, a junior varsity game between the teams in 1998.

"It was the season finale and we were both undefeated," Lube said. "The stands were packed. It was as big as any varsity game. It was electric."

So has PHU surpassed Tarpon Springs as East Lake's biggest rival?

"I'll let the media and the fans be the judge of that," Lube said. "It's kind of like college football where a team can have a lot of big rivals. It makes it more fun, and that's the area standout."