BROOKSVILLE — A blossoming football rivalry in west central Florida — Nature Coast vs. South Sumter — has wilted. At least for now.
A Hernando County School District mandate, requiring the county's public schools to play one another in football, has forced the Sharks to drop South Sumter from their 2009 schedule.
The development comes less than four months before the originally scheduled Sept. 11 contest in Bushnell. As a result, Raiders coach/athletic director Inman Sherman is livid, and Nature Coast administrators are remorseful.
"Since virtually all high schools now have football schedules (in place), this will be a financial hardship on our football program," Sherman said in an e-mail to various media outlets including the St. Petersburg Times.
"I feel bad for South Sumter," Sharks athletic director Travis Lamle responded, "because it is too late for them (to find another opponent)."
The glitch originated earlier this winter, when Lamle said he tried in vain to schedule Central and Springstead. At one point in late January, Springstead athletic director Bob Levija told the Times his school already had completed its schedule — minus the Sharks.
But in an early February meeting in the school district office, county director of school services Sonya Jackson made it clear that all schools must play one another in football. Jackson, who will replace Nature Coast principal Tizzy Schoelles this fall, didn't respond to a phone message Tuesday. Lamle said Jackson's directive came from superintendent Wayne Alexander.
Nature Coast and Central, who in the past played in the season's final week, ultimately agreed to meet in the Sept. 4 season opener. But as of May 1, Springstead and Nature Coast had no game scheduled, though Lamle said he had worked the phones for months.
Finally, in a face-to-face meeting last week, Schoelles and Springstead counterpart Susan Duval hashed things out.
Nature Coast's schedule already was crammed with seven Class 3A, District 6 games — which it must play to be postseason-eligible — and the Central contest. The other two foes: South Sumter in Week Two and Tarpon Springs East Lake in Week 11.
Duval, according to Schoelles, didn't want to play in Week 11, a week before the playoffs begin. So Schoelles agreed to Week Two, leaving South Sumter the odd team out.
"I felt like, okay, I don't need to be bratty," Schoelles said Tuesday. "I don't need to have my way. I have a game Week Two and Week 11. Either way I have to cancel one. I acquiesced. … I'm in a rock and a hard place."
Despite the eleventh-hour cancellation, Nature Coast — fined $10,400 and disqualified from the 2008 postseason by the FHSAA for its role in a Nov. 7 brawl at Groveland South Lake — may not face further penalties.
FHSAA associate executive director Denarvise Thornton said via e-mail Tuesday a contract between two schools can be dissolved with no penalties if both schools agree. Schoelles said she has been in talks with South Sumter principal Preston Morgan.
Few feel worse than Schoelles and Lamle, who describes the annual gate receipts from the Sharks-Raiders game as "incredible." Last year's contest, in which both entered undefeated, drew a standing-room-only audience at Nature Coast, which won 41-14.
"I really tried hard not to burn bridges with South Sumter," Schoelles said. "I feel it's a good rivalry. … It makes us a better team to play the competition at South Sumter."