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District of champions? Something’s got to give in this three-county division

Pinellas Park, East Lake, Mitchell, Sunlake and Sickles regularly win districts and/or make the playoffs. Now they’re all competing for the same title.
Pinellas Park players take the field last season against East Lake. [TAILYR IRVINE  |  Times]
Pinellas Park players take the field last season against East Lake. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]
Published Aug. 22, 2019
Updated Aug. 23, 2019

With new districts come new challenges. New rivalries. New hope.

That’s especially true in Class 7A, District 9 where six teams from three counties are vying for one district championship. Familiar Pinellas rivals East Lake and Pinellas Park join Sickles and Leto from Hillsborough and Sunlake and Mitchell from Pasco.

Aside from Sickles and Leto, each team has won at least one district championship in the past five years. Mitchell has won or tied for a district title in every year of that time span.

Now they are all thrown into the same district, which should be exciting, right? Depends on who you ask.

“I don’t even know where Sunlake is,” Pinellas Park coach Kenny Crawford said. “I don’t know where any of these other (new) schools are.”

RELATED: Gaither pulls no punches with football schedule

Okay, so Crawford is old school. Now in his 11th season as the Patriots coach, he has only played in districts with other Pinellas schools. For the past seven years, including this season, East Lake and Pinellas Park have been in the same district.

Pinellas Park won the district championship the past two seasons, only to have the season end in the first round of the playoffs against Palmetto, also their foe Friday night.

While Crawford understands there is nothing he can do about district realignment, he does wish he could stay closer to home for district games.

“I grew up here (Pinellas County) and we’ve always kind of thought that you had to earn your way out of the county,” he said. “I always thought that was cool. Now we’re taking these major bus rides just to play district games.

“We don’t play any of our rivals anymore. We don’t play Dixie. We don’t play Northeast. We don’t play Seminole. We don’t play Osceola. We don’t play any school that is around our school.”

Mitchell coach Andrew Schmitz, holding up a football in center of mob, celebrates a 14-0 victory over arch-rival River Ridge last season. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

The change in district opponents did not come as a surprise to Mitchell coach Andy Schmitz. What he said was a bit surprising was the mix of teams. The Mustangs have had a run of 10 straight winning seasons. They were 8-3 last season, making the playoffs for the fifth straight year.

Every team except Leto in this year’s district had a winning season in 2018. Raising another district championship banner will be a bit harder for the Mustangs.

“The biggest challenge is that a lot of us haven’t played each other before,” Schmitz said. “When we play River Ridge or Land O’ Lakes, as a coaching staff we have a pretty good idea what to expect. Now we’re going to play four teams that we have never seen before. That is a challenge.”

RELATED: New district, new expectations for Lennard

Sickles, which last won a title in 2014, had been buried in a district with Plant since 2015. The Gryphons, however, did make the playoffs last season and finished 7-4.

Sunlake moves up a class with Mitchell the only common opponent from last year’s 6A-6.

“It’s exciting to get a little bit of Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas in the same district, but it’s also going to be tough,” first-year Sunlake coach Trey Burdick said. “You’ve got three returning playoff teams (Pinellas Park, Mitchell and Sickles) and a perennial playoff contender (East Lake), so that makes it pretty challenging.”

As the season kicks off, there is no clear favorite.

“It’s one of the tougher districts in the Tampa Bay area,” Schmitz said.

High school football, Week 1

All games Friday night.

Clearwater Central Catholic at Berkeley Prep, 7

Carrollwood Day at St. Petersburg Catholic, 7

Central at Umatilla, 7

Cambridge Christian at Winter Garden Foundation Academy, 7

Melbourne Central Catholic at Calvary Christian, 7

Weeki Wachee at South Lake, 7

Zephyrhills Christian at Lake Placid, 7

Bishop McLaughlin at Jacksonville Christ’s Church, 7

Fivay at Lecanto, 7

Lakeland Tenoroc at Hudson, 7

Seven Rivers Christian at Bayshore Christian, 7

Tampa Catholic at Naples Palmetto Ridge, 7

Admiral Farragut at St. Stephen’s, 7

Gibbs at Boca Ciega, 7

Bradenton Christian at Indian Rocks Christian, 7

Shorecrest at Northside Christian, 7

Palm Bay Heritage at Clearwater, 7

East Lake at Nature Coast, 7:30

Plant at Armwood, 7:30

Sunlake at Springstead, 7:30

Pasco at Land O’ Lakes, 7:30

Zephyrhills at Wiregrass Ranch, 7:30

Chamberlain at Tampa Bay Tech, 7:30

Gaither at Jefferson, 7:30

Robinson at Hillsborough, 7:30

Plant City at Jesuit, 7:30

St. Petersburg at Lakewood, 7:30

Northeast at Tarpon Springs, 7:30

Pinellas Park at Palmetto, 7:30

Lake Gibson at Hernando, 7:30

Anclote at Mitchell, 7:30

Cypress Creek at Wesley Chapel, 7:30

Osceola at Gulf, 7:30

River Ridge Crystal River, 7:30

Middleton at Alonso, 7:30

Blake at Riverview, 7:30

Newsome at Bloomingdale, 7:30

Wharton at Brandon, 7:30

Durant at King, 7:30

East Bay at Lennard, 7:30

Freedom at Steinbrenner, 7:30

Strawberry Crest at Leto, 7:30

Orlando Christian Prep at Seffner Christian, 7:30

Sickles at Spoto, 7:30

Immokalee at Clearwater Academy, 7:30

Palm Harbor U. at Dixie Hollins, 7:30

Largo at Braden River, 7:30

Dunedin at Keswick Christian, 7:30

Watch live

Friday’s Plant-Armwood game will be streamed at theidentitytb.com or download The Identity Tampa Bay’s app.

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