Could Florida prep football have a premier league? It’s being pondered

An “open” division would feature the state’s eight highest-ranked teams vying for their own title.
Clearwater Central Catholic had a difficult time catching Ohio State commit Jeremiah Smith, the No. 1 overall ranked player in the country according to 247Sports, during the Marauders' 56-0 loss in the Class 1M final last week.
Clearwater Central Catholic had a difficult time catching Ohio State commit Jeremiah Smith, the No. 1 overall ranked player in the country according to 247Sports, during the Marauders' 56-0 loss in the Class 1M final last week. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Dec. 12, 2023|Updated Dec. 12, 2023

A two-hour emergency meeting of the Florida High School Athletic Association’s board of directors Tuesday resulted in a new classification system for all prep team sports, and mandated district schedules for tackle football.

But still on the table is a proposal both intriguing and polarizing: the creation of an “open” division in which the state’s eight highest-ranked football teams at the end of the regular season — regardless of classification — compete for their own state title.

That concept, part of a proposal set forth by association executive director Craig Damon after hours of a discussions with a task force, remains on the back-burner for now. What was passed Tuesday (by a 9-4 vote) is the re-establishment of eight classifications (1A through 7A, with one rural class) for team sports based on school populations.

Mandated district games means district champions will be decided on the field, with remaining playoff spots determined by a rankings system.

They replace the metro-suburban-rural system of the last two years, designed to give schools in less-populated areas a better opportunity to compete for a state title. For example, Cocoa High defeated Starke’s Bradford County High for the Class 2S (suburban) football state crown this season, while Tampa’s Berkeley Prep topped Miami Norland for the 2M (metro) title.

The open-division proposal — if ultimately passed — would appear to go one step further than the metro-suburban setup in seeking equity in a playoff system that has been dominated by a handful of schools in recent years.

The concept coincides with Chaminade-Madonna — a private school in Hollywood — winning its sixth state title in the last seven years. The Lions steamrolled through Class 1M this season, outscoring four playoff opponents by a combined score of 210-7, including a 56-0 rout of Clearwater Central Catholic in the title game.

Other state powers to whom this proposal seems geared: Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (a state champion eight of the last 10 seasons) and Miami Central (four consecutive state titles from 2019-2022). The MaxPreps rankings would be employed to determine the eight overall highest-ranked teams at the end of the regular season.

CCC coach Chris Harvey, whose team has fallen to the Lions in the state finals each of the last two years, said Tuesday’s decisions ultimately don’t affect the Marauders greatly because “the team that we haven’t been able to beat will follow us into whatever classification there is.”

But if Chaminade-Madonna is placed in an open division, “I do question the legitimacy of the state championships,” Harvey added, “if the best teams are pulled out of them before they ever even start.”

Ricky Bell, a citizen-at-large member of the board of directors, said he believes an open division should be structured as an invitational.

“In other words, you take the top eight teams — if you want to use the rankings for that — and you ask them, ‘Do you want to participate and be one of the best teams in the state?’” said Bell, the former longtime athletic director for Leon County.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“And if they agree, then they play. I don’t see how we can force a team like DeFuniak Springs Walton ... to go play Chaminade-Madonna. Why would they do that? Because they’re going to say, ‘No, we don’t want to do that.’ And you make them go out there and take that beating? To me, if you’re going to have an open division, it should be invitational.”

Question remains, does an open division cheapen the significance of a state title in the other classes?

“I don’t think so,” said Armwood coach Evan Davis, an assistant on the Hawks teams that lost three consecutive Class 6A state title games (2013-2015) to Miami Central.

“If we win a state championship and we’re not in the elite eight, we’re still going to celebrate it. But what benefit do you get if you’re in that elite eight and you lose in the first round?”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.