Minutes after watching his team earn a state finals berth on senior Regan O'Rourke's last-second, off-balance jumper, Clearwater High boys basketball coach Allen Carden fired a desperation prayer of his own.
A plea for the state's prep athletics governing body not to trim the regular season in most sports.
"While I'm standing up here on this platform, I just want to implore the Florida High School (Athletic Association), do not take those games away from us," Carden said in a Lakeland Center interview room following the Tornadoes' 44-43 win over Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer.
"You see the excitement out there. …Don't take the opportunity to get better. Don't take the opportunity for a kid to get a college scholarship. Don't take that away from us, don't take that away from these kids."
Carden's words, while echoed from Crestview to Key West, aren't likely to thwart what appears to be the unavoidable.
In response to the state's economic crisis and a plea from school superintendents, the FHSAA's board of directors will vote April 27 on a proposal to shrink the regular season in many sports by 20 percent.
If passed (and the board's decision is final), the move would reduce the regular season from 25 to 20 games in boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer, baseball, softball and volleyball. Football would be unaffected.
The mandate would be in effect two years. At least.
"(The statewide reaction) has been mixed," said FHSAA spokeswoman Cristina Alvarez, noting the association office initially was flooded with negative e-mails and phone calls.
"I think that the problem we're facing is that some people don't understand why this is happening or coming around. We're trying to save (junior varsity) sports instead of school districts trying to cut the entire program because of budget cuts."
However noble the intent, a reduced regular season could change the complexion — and, perhaps, significance — of high school sports as we know it. To illustrate the enormity of its ripple effect, the Times has taken a closer look at four areas that could be impacted by a shortened regular season.
A potentially reduced regular season has sent organizers of some of the area's most revered holiday tournaments scrambling to preserve their existence.
Tony Saladino, for one, has taken the proactive approach. In the past, competitors in the sprawling Saladino Tournament — a 28-team baseball showcase open to all Hillsborough County schools and a few other invitees — had to allot six regular-season games for the tournament (the champion and runnerup play six games). In a 20-game regular season, that would be nearly one-third of the schedule. Too much.
But Saladino and his staff have devised a new format, which he said has been approved by the county, in which teams would have to commit only five games.
The biggest difference: Two weeks before the tournament, the 28 teams would be seeded, with the top 16 divided into four pools. The four pool winners would then square off in two elimination rounds to determine the champion. The other 12 teams would play in a lower-tier division for a lower title.
"It will give every team something to play for," Saladino said.
Across the county, Jesuit soccer coach Bob Bauman has been forced to reduce the field in the prestigious High School Invitational (formerly the Admiral Invitational) staged annually during the Christmas break.
Once a 32-team event (featuring two 16-team tourneys) that has drawn teams from as far as California, Bauman says this year's event likely will feature only 24. Additionally, third-, fifth-, seventh- and ninth-place games will be eliminated. As a result, teams would have to allot only five regular-season contests toward the tournament.
"I think the coaches and people that put together these tournaments have to look at being a little more creative," Bauman said. "My thought is trying to find one way to do that and not break the bank."
Baumann and others are clinging to hope that a separate proposal — one that might salvage the larger tournaments — will garner support from the FHSAA board.
According to the minutes from last month's Athletic Directors Advisory Committee meeting, a recommendation was floated to count a tournament as a maximum two games toward a team's regular-season schedule. Again, the board of directors has final say on such a recommendation.
"For the four or five kids I have who have college aspirations, I just hope the (reduced) number of games doesn't hurt them in terms of playing experience," said Tampa Catholic girls basketball coach Nancy Kroll, who hosts the annual Keeler Memorial.
"I'm a football fan, but I'm not a fan of the fact that it affects every sport but football."
However ingrained "all-conference" might be in the prep sports lexicon, playoff berths still take higher priority than conference titles. As a result, such well-known entities as the Pinellas County Athletic Conference and Sunshine Athletic Conference are being forced to restructure to remain existent.
The problem centers around the clash of district and conference games. To be eligible for the postseason, teams must play each opponent in their district at least once, usually twice. With fewer regular-season games, teams in large districts would have fewer openings on their schedule to play conference opponents.
Boca Ciega athletic director Bob Medici, who helps coordinate PCAC schedules, said a "rough draft" has been hashed out through the 2009-10 winter sports season that allows Pinellas public schools to fulfill their district and conference obligations within 15 games.
The downside: "Teams will have to be very careful with what they pick and choose as far as tournaments," Medici said.
Volleyball and basketball coaches in Class 4A, District 8 — a nine-team district featuring teams from three counties — already have opted to play each other only once. That frees the five Pasco County teams in the district to schedule their other seven SAC foes. But the conference is growing, with another Pasco public school being constructed in Hudson.
"If it's 20 (regular-season games), to make it (the SAC) viable we're probably going to have to limit play within the conference," said Hudson baseball coach Keith Newton, executive secretary/treasurer of the SAC. "Maybe we just do one game against each other or there's the possibility of a split (east-west) conference.''
Simple math suggests if the total number of regular-season contests shrink, so will the chances of some of the area's most coveted individual and team records ever being approached.
Former Plant City star Russell Evans, Hillsborough County's career boys basketball scoring leader (2,540 points), played in 33 games as a senior and 29 as a junior. Should the proposed 20-game regular season pass, no one is likely to sniff his 18-year-old mark.
Even assuming someone plays 100 games over four years (including deep playoff runs each season), they'd have to average 25.4 points for their career to match Evans. But he's hardly the only one whose record might be destined for immortality.
A reduced regular season might make the 2006 Pasco baseball team's state home run record (66) unattainable. And would anyone ever be able to threaten Pasco County's single-season boys soccer mark of 55 goals (1999-2000) held by ex-Land O'Lakes' soccer star Justin Geisler?
"I highly, highly doubt it," Gators coach Mark Pearson said. "Unless you're an incredibly strong team playing in a very, very weak district, which can happen from time to time in certain districts, that's almost an impossibility. …You're talking almost a hat trick a game."
One needn't go to the far reaches of the earth to find a supporter of a reduced scheduled, just the nether regions of the North Suncoast.
At Hudson, Newton's reasons for supporting the proposal is the possibility a 20-game regular season would greatly reduce overlap of sports seasons, an issue coaches have bemoaned for years.
Consider: The first permissible practice day for baseball was Jan. 19, with the first games held Feb. 16. The boys basketball postseason didn't even begin in until Feb. 19. Because a 20 percent reduction in a season likely would trim 10-14 days off that sport's calendar, kids who wished to participate in multiple sports could more practically do so.
"You hardly ever see the two-sport or three-sport athlete anymore," Newton said.
"If you could play 25 games, coaches would. If you could play 30, there's a lot of coaches that would play 30. I mean, you make it to a point where you make a kid pick a sport. Because of the overlap, the kid has to make a choice.''
Staff writers Eduardo A. Encina, John C. Cotey and Bob Putnam contributed to this report.