High school football is back

East Lake quarterback Matt Trotto and the Eagles will begin their 2019 campaign Friday night at Nature Coast Tech.

Mother Nature may not be ready to cooperate, but football is back whether she likes it or not.

Annual Fall Classic preseason high school games had a tough time getting completed last Friday night. Some were able to push through the dreary, wet weather while others were suspended or outright cancelled.

But that was then and this is now. Week 1 is here and these games count.

For schools in North Pinellas, the 2019 season may be about redemption. Clearwater snuck in the postseason as a No. 7 seed in Class 6A and was the lone public school in the area to do so. Class 3A private schools Clearwater Central Catholic and Calvary Christian also qualified for the tournament, with CCC playing itself into the state final four.

Battling through the regular season into the playoffs this year will require navigating new districts and qualifying under new Florida High School Athletic Association rules. Classification and district changes occur every two to four years, but the sport’s statewide governing body continues tweaking its postseason qualification process.

Requirements differ for schools in Classes 1A-4A and Classes 5A-8A but all programs will have a Ratings Percentage Index, or RPI, that will fluctuate as the season progresses. What matters in calculating a school’s RPI is its own winning percentage, its opponents’ winning percentage and each opponent’s opponents’ winning percentage.

The process is more complex than the old-school way of sending each district’s champion and runner-up into the playoffs, but adjustments implemented over the past couple years seem to be getting positive reviews.

Regardless of the qualification system, however, taking care of business on the field will always be the best way to ensure access to the postseason. That’s something North Pinellas programs struggled with during a down 2018 season. Six wins was the high-water mark for the area and Clearwater’s playoff run ended with a first-round defeat at Punta Gorda Charlotte.

There’s potential for a bounce-back in 2019, but new districts present difficult challenges.

Clearwater will be in the mix again in Class 6A District 7, competing against Countryside, Largo, Osceola and Seminole. Largo beat out the Tornadoes their league championship last year and should be right there again. Countryside played itself to six wins in 2018 and getting into the contention will depend on how this year’s roster copes with losing a considerable amount of production due to graduation. Clearwater opens its season Friday night against Palm Bay Heritage and Countryside travels to Bradenton Southeast.

East Lake missed out on the playoffs for a second straight season after qualifying eight years in a row. The Eagles weren’t far off from making it as an at-large bid, but district-champion Pinellas Park was by far the league’s best program. This year’s Class 7A-9 field puts East Lake and Pinellas Park together again, along with Mitchell and Sunlake from Pasco County and Leto and Sickles from Hillsborough. Leto didn’t win a game last year but Pinellas Park, Mitchell and Sickles were playoff teams. East Lake ending its brief postseason drought is going to be no easy task. The Eagles will begin that journey by heading to Nature Coast Tech Friday night.

Tarpon Springs is coming off back-to-back five-win seasons and enter 2019 with a new head coach. The Spongers will be the lone Pinellas County program in an otherwise all-Pasco league. Dealing with Anclote, Gulf and Wesley Chapel can be manageable, but Zephyrhills and River Ridge will likely lead the charge in District 5A-11. Friday night’s regular-season opener at home against Northeast will let Tarpon Springs see where they stand early.

Palm Harbor University begins its second season under Coach Michael Mullaney. The Hurricanes have found themselves piled into extremely challenging districts for the better part of this decade and that didn’t change with the latest reclassification. PHU’s four District 8A-7 counterparts are all Hillsborough schools, including perennial state power Plant High. The Hurricanes went 3-7 last year and may be able to better than mark in 2019. They can start the season on a positive note Friday night at Dixie Hollins.

Dunedin’s extensive rebuild continues and the program decided to take itself out of district competition this season, playing as an independent. The Falcons showed signs of progress last year but they still haven’t won a regular-season game since 2014. The quest for that elusive victory begins on the road Friday night at Keswick Christian.