Countryside and East Lake will renew their annual rivalry this Friday night at Countryside High. The Cougars have had the Eagles' number in recent years, winning the past five meetings. ERIC HORCHY/STAFF
CLEARWATER — True rivalries don't need anything extra to spice up their intensity. As long as the two teams show up on Friday night, all that matters is those next 48 minutes. But with a playoff berth potentially riding on this week's outcome between East Lake and Countryside, the annual showdown means a little more this time. The teams took a two-year break from sharing a district when East Lake bumped up to Class 8A. Now, the fast track to Class 7A District 9's top seed and postseason home-field advantage will be determined Friday night at Countryside. [Be sure to go to www.suncoastnews.com to find photos, quotes and the most extensive recap of the game.]
Although East Lake can brag about overtaking Countryside as North Pinellas' top program in terms of playoff success the last couple seasons, it's the Cougars who continue to own these head-to-head clashes. C-Side is one of two Pinellas County teams — Largo being the other — East Lake has struggled to topple as its program's star continues to rise over the past decade. The Cougars have won eight of the last nine meetings and five in a row. A 21-13 decision in 2007 represents the Eagles' last on-field triumph in the series. They officially were given last year's W by technicality when Countryside's 27-14 win was reversed due to Florida High School Athletic Association penalties. But another real victory over the Cougars is the one thing East Lake has been missing the past few seasons. The Eagles sacked Largo for only the second time in seven years with Week 2's 22-0 victory. Finally taking out the Cougars will be even sweeter. Doing so won't be an easy assignment, however. Not only does Countryside (5-1, 2-0) defend its turf well, the Cougars are steadily coming together as a team at the right time. Starting quarterback Robby Hicks and backup Trent Chmelik share time behind center throughout most games and both provide coach Jared Davis the confidence to go down field at any time. The Cougars average more than 20 pass attempts per game as they have largely relied on a running-back-by-committee approach while looking for a No. 1 option to emerge. That appears to be junior Dante Satcher, who turned in a three-touchdown effort during last week's win at Tarpon Springs. Both offensive elements will have to be clicking against an East Lake defense that is playing lights out this season, surrendering less than six points per game. Against top-tier opponents, the Cougars scored 15 points in their season-opening win over Lakewood and were blanked 27-0 at home against Palmetto. East Lake (6-0, 2-0) is better than both of those teams, meaning it's put-up or shut-up time if Countryside wants to consider itself a bona fide contender. Though far from infallible, the Eagles are playing extremely well in all three facets of the game right now. What will be interesting to see is who trots out to lead the offense to start Friday night's game. Jake Hudson began the season starting but left midway through the Eagles' rivalry game with Tarpon Springs. Backup Brandon Swift took over from there and also directed last week's blowout win over Seminole. If both QBs see playing time and one's effort significantly trumps the other's, it could serve as the determinant for who should steer the Eagles throughout the final three weeks and beyond.