PLANT CITY — Every two years, the local high school football scene gets a shakeup.
This go-round could provide a seismic shift.
The Florida High School Athletics Association's fall population report gives the first indication on how the districts will be shaped for the next two seasons. It can serve as a Christmas present or a big lump of coal.
In 2010, Strawberry Crest found coal in its stocking. After an inaugural year of independent play, the FHSAA placed the Chargers in their first football district, a Class 6A group that included a state champion in Jefferson and perennial powers Armwood and Hillsborough.
Strawberry Crest knew it wouldn't be going to the playoffs for at least a couple of more years.
The FHSAA issued its latest figures last week, and this year it looks like the Chargers have hit the jackpot.
Strawberry Crest will move up to Class 7A — while Armwood will not. Better yet, for the first time Strawberry Crest, Plant City and Durant seemed destined for the same district.
"Even though our season just ended, I'm already trying to get a jump start, so yeah I looked at it," said Chargers head coach John Kelly.
In fact, he pored over the population data enough to be convinced we'll see the all-Plant City grouping in 7A.
Never have all three Plant City schools been in the same district for a team sport. District placement means everything in football because only games against district opponents count toward playoff qualification. A team stuck behind two powers can easily run into frustration. Consider Sunlake, the Land O'Lakes school that went 8-2 this year but failed to reach the postseason.
Strawberry Crest beat the Raiders this season but ended up below .500 because of the challenges it found in Class 6A, District 8. The Chargers gave Hillsborough and Jefferson tough tests but lost, 32-24 and 35-31 respectively.
"We still have a long way to go before we talk too much about playoffs," Kelly said. "But I'd be lying if I said your playoff chances don't improve with Armwood out of the way. And you always want to play your (Plant City) rivals."
There are eight classifications, and using the past population report as a guide, it seems impossible that the three Plant City schools don't all end up in Class 7A.
The only way they won't sit in the same district is if the FHSAA decides to, for example, group Strawberry Crest with Tampa-area teams or maybe slide Plant City into a Polk County grouping. But there are six well-established Polk County schools already in the 7A range, making the latter move unlikely.
The other Hillsborough County projected 7A teams — Steinbrenner, Sickles, Freedom and Gaither — are all in the same north Tampa area and would make a natural grouping with Pasco County's only 7A team, Wiregrass Ranch, thrown into the mix.
If that geographical logic holds true, the three Plant City schools will likely be joined by East Bay, Brandon and Riverview, unless the Sharks get nudged up to 8A. Tampa Bay Tech also could land in the 7A district if it doesn't get grouped with the aforementioned north Tampa bunch.
Perhaps the biggest question will be what happens to Plant. The powerful Panthers are right on the line between being an 8A or 7A school. Eagerly awaiting that decision are Class 8A-bound Alonso and Wharton.
Bloomingdale and Newsome also are on the large-school population border, but appear to be destined for a Class 8A district. Plant City and Durant won't bemoan losing Newsome from its list of district foes, especially when you consider the Wolves recently ended Durant's perfect season with a 21-14 defeat in the regional semifinal.
The 6A district will remain competitive with Armwood, Hillsborough and Jefferson. Robinson, which plays in a 5A state semifinal tonight, also may move up. King, Chamberlain, Lennard, Blake and Leto also may play in 6A, but the FHSAA could divide up the high number of 6A schools into two districts.
Jesuit, Spoto, Middleton and Robinson spent the last two seasons in a nine-team behemoth Class 5A district. There are no more than those four Hillsborough County teams that could be 5A bound, so the FHSAA will have to decide how to group that quarter with the high number of Class 5A teams in Pasco and Pinellas counties.
The population report is viewable at fhsaa.org and again, the final decisions won't come until January. However, who can blame the coaches for looking ahead. Doesn't everyone take an early peek at their Christmas gifts?
Darek Sharp can be reached at [email protected]