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Classification changes affect scheduling

The growth of Pasco County will catch up to its high school athletic teams in the fall, as five of the county's nine schools will face a new challenge: moving up one classification to face schools with larger populations in several sports.

The Florida High School Activities Association released tentative district plans last week, and Land O'Lakes, Mitchell and River Ridge are scheduled to move up to Class 5A in basketball, soccer and volleyball, with similar changes expected in baseball and softball. Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills will move up to 4A, leaving Pasco as the county's lone 3A school.

Having nine county schools split among three classes creates scheduling problems that will force drastic cuts in regular-season competition among Sunshine Athletic Conference teams.

"It's definitely going to have to change," said Gulf football coach Keith Newton, who also serves as the SAC's secretary. "The old districts were based on attendance figures from two years ago, and a lot has changed in the last two years."

Gulf, Hudson, Pasco and Ridgewood didn't change classifications, but enough has changed around them that a new format must be chosen to determine conference champions.

District schedules call for all teams to play twice in the regular season. In past years, there has been enough overlap between the district and conference lineups that schools could still fit home-and-home series with all SAC schools on their schedule. That will no longer be the case with the new alignment.

Pasco, for instance, shares a basketball district with Hernando, South Sumter, Wildwood and Nature Coast Tech, which will open in western Brooksville this fall. The Pirates are committed to eight district games, but if you add in two games each with eight conference opponents, Pasco would be locked in for 24 games, one less than the FHSAA maximum for an entire season.

To give schools more flexibility, new scheduling options will be voted on at the conference coaches meeting in May. The new plans could involve playing each school only once, as volleyball did this season to help combat schedule reductions. Another option is creating East and West divisions to the conference, allowing teams to play opponents on their side twice and teams on the opposite side once. With either plan, a season-ending conference tournament could also be added.

"It's going to change the way you think about the conference," Ridgewood athletic director Gary Anders said. "Something has to change, whether it's playing everyone once or doing an East-West split."

There are other interesting changes as a result of the new districts:

In volleyball, River Ridge and Mitchell, the county's dominant teams last year, share a three-team district with Land O'Lakes. That makes it more likely that the Knights and Mustangs will square off three or four times next season and allows other west-side powers, such as Hudson and Ridgewood, a chance to battle in a different district. Wesley Chapel, which has dominated an easier Class 3A district the past two years, will have to get past the Cobras and Rams to return to the playoffs this fall.

Mitchell and River Ridge, locked in for only 10 volleyball games in their district and conference schedules, can now play three tournaments instead of two. Pasco, on the other hand, is locked in for 16 games, restricting its out-of-county scheduling options.

In boys basketball, Ridgewood and Wesley Chapel, who earned top-five state rankings and won multiple playoff games in Class 4A and 3A, respectively, will now play in the same district, adding to what is the sport's best rivalry in the county.

In boys soccer, where Wildwood and South Sumter do not field teams, Pasco will play in a three-team district with Hernando and first-year Nature Coast Tech. All the Pirates would need to do to reach the postseason is get one win against the fledgling Sharks. The county's soccer powers get reshuffled, with Land O'Lakes off in Class 5A and three 2003 playoff teams _ Hudson, Ridgewood, Wesley Chapel _ battling for two playoff spots in Class 4A.

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