EAST LAKE – In years past, Friday night’s game between East Lake and Gaither wouldn’t really mean all that much.
Yes, it was a district game that would affect the league standings and how the upcoming district tournament would be seeded. But it would still be a fairly innocuous mid-January game against an overmatched opponent.
That’s not the case anymore. Not after the Florida High School Athletic Association shook up how boys and girls basketball teams qualify for the postseason.
Now every game means a lot, no matter the opponent, especially for bubble teams like East Lake.
The old system was more cut-and-dry, for better or for worse. Every district held a tournament. The two teams that played their way into the championship game were slotted into the regional brackets: District champ and runner-up.
The new system is similar, but also quite different. Every district still hosts a tournament and the winner is crowned district champion and advances automatically. There are four districts in every region. Instead of four runners-up rounding out each eight-team region, there are four at-large qualifiers. Those teams are determined by rankings on MaxPreps.com, a website operated by CBSsports.com that has become increasingly influential in high school sports over the past decade.
The change means that some districts may only send their champ to the postseason, while others send, theoretically, up to five. One district with five qualifiers would be extreme, but quite a few will get as many as three. A relevant example would be Class 6A District 11. That league is in Region 3, along with East Lake’s District 6A-9. If the season ended this week, Bradenton Braden River, Punta Gorda Charlotte, Sarasota and Fort Myers would all qualify, assuming one of the league’s lesser two programs didn’t pull off an unlikely run through the district tournament and win the title.
The depth of District 6A-11 is bad news for teams like East Lake. The Eagles entered Friday’s game against Gaither as the region’s 10th-ranked program. At that position, the Eagles would need to win their district title to return to the postseason for a second year in a row.
“For us it’s tough,” East Lake coach Ryan Quigley said. “It’s putting a lot of pressure on us because every game’s a must-win it feels like. Every day during lunch when we watch film we see where we’re at in the rankings. If we don’t win the district championship, we don’t want to put it in somebody else’s hands.
“We know where we’re at right now and we still have work to do.”
That work continues Tuesday against Tampa Catholic, the first of six remaining games on the Eagles’ schedule.
Sitting in a similar situation is East Lake rival Tarpon Springs. The Spongers also entered last Friday ranked 10th in its region and on the outside looking in, but they aren’t far off pace. Weeki Wachee, the eighth-ranked team in Class 4A Region 2, was just four spots ahead of Tarpon Springs in the overall Class 4A rankings.
North Pinellas’ top contenders to continue playing after district tournament time are Clearwater and Calvary Christian.
The Warriors fell back to .500 Friday after losing to Academy of the Holy Names but find themselves in a more favorable situation in Class 3A Region 2. Calvary entered last week ranked ninth in the region, but climbed up to sixth prior to the AHN defeat. The Warriors also benefit from playing in a weaker district this year and could likely enter the league tournament as the No. 1 seed.
The Tornadoes find themselves in a similar situation but more difficult district. They began the week ranked seventh in Class 5A Region 3 and are joined in the District 5A-10 standings by Bradenton Southeast (No. 2) and Northeast (No. 3). Clearwater doesn’t lag behind either, however. The Tornadoes, who have participated in the postseason four straight years, don’t play Northeast in the regular season and dropped a pair of tight games against Southeast.
Two weeks of regular-season girls basketball games remain before district tournaments get underway Feb. 3.