With the high school football playoffs starting Friday night, here are the five biggest story lines for Pinellas County:
Is there a state champion from this county?
History would say no. Pinellas County has never won a state title in football at any level. But a couple of teams have a fair shot. Clearwater Central Catholic (10-0) and Admiral Farragut (8-1) are both No. 1 seeds with first-round byes. If things go as planned for the Marauders, they likely will run into defending champ Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna (8-2) in the region final. Tallahassee Florida High (6-3) and West Palm Beach King's Academy (9-1) are the top seeds on the other side of the bracket. The Marauders are healthy again, but the question mark is depth.
The same can be said of Admiral Farragut. The Blue Jackets likely will get unbeaten Seffner Christian in the region final. Seven-time state champ North Florida Christian (5-4), which appears weaker than in years past, and Lakeland Victory Christian (9-1) are the top seeds on the other side of the bracket. The Blue Jackets lost by a touchdown early in the season to Victory Christian. If they can stay healthy, and if the defense continues its stingy play (allowing an average of 4.3 points a game), a state title isn't far-fetched.
Can Clearwater regroup?
The Tornadoes (6-4) appeared to be in good shape three weeks ago. They were coming off a thrilling 27-26 victory over Boca Ciega that put them in position to win the Class 6A, District 9 title. Then the slide began. Clearwater lost 39-27 to rival Largo and suspended four players. Then the Tornadoes were routed 34-12 by East Lake in the regular-season finale. Instead of hosting a playoff game, Clearwater will travel to Punta Gorda Charlotte (8-2) in a rematch of a 2016 region semifinal the Tornadoes lost 52-25. The Tornadoes have to get their offense, led by 2,000-yard passer Rent Montie (third-best QB in Class 6A), back on track. Clearwater was averaging 39 points per game during its 6-2 start. The Tornadoes have scored 39 in their past two games combined.
What is the best first-round matchup?
It's got to be No. 7 Palmetto at No. 2 Pinellas Park. The Patriots went 10-0, but because of the number of quality teams in Class 7A, Region 3, are ranked behind defending state champion Venice in the bracket. And as they will find out Friday, even a No. 7 seed in this bracket is tough. Palmetto (7-3) has losses to Manatee, Venice and Braden River, which is seeded fifth in this bracket. The Braden River loss was only by three points and the Manatee loss was the second game of the season. This is the season, however, that Pinellas Park has been looking forward to for a few years. The Patriots have rushed for more than 3,000 yards (led by junior Lawrance Toafili's 1,329 yards and 16 touchdowns) and thrown for more than 1,500, a balance the Patriots lacked in the past. If the defense can make plays, they should survive Round 1.
Which Largo team will show up?
The Packers are 7-3 and should be even better; two losses were by less than a touchdown. But there was also a quality win over Clearwater, a blowout win over Countryside and an early-season win over East Lake. As long as Largo believes it is the underdog, the team tends to play better. "I haven't gotten to the point where I'm a good enough of a coach to show my kids how to handle success. But we dang sure can handle adversity,'' coach Marcus Paschal said after the 39-27 win over Clearwater. There may be some adversity against North Fort Myers (7-3), which has won seven of its past eight. The only loss in that stretch was to Charlotte, the No. 2 seed in this region.
Will Lakewood’s tough schedule pay off?
Each season, coach Cory Moore scours the state for quality opponents. The games against powerhouse programs usually do not result in wins. But it does help Lakewood get ready for the playoffs. The Spartans (5-5) have won at least one postseason game in four of the past six seasons. This year has followed a familiar pattern. Lakewood started slow, losing five of its first eight. Five of those opponents either have a winning record or made the playoffs. In the past two weeks, the Spartans put things together, winning the Class 5A, District 10 title and knocking off playoff-bound Largo in the regular-season finale. So momentum is on the Spartans' side.
All games at 7:30 Friday night. Admission is $8.
Palmetto at Pinellas Park
Clearwater at Punta Gorda Charlotte
North Fort Myers at Largo
Sarasota Booker at Lakewood
Clearwater Central Catholic has a bye
Calvary Christian at Sarasota Cardinal Mooney
Admiral Farragut has a bye