Column: Preview of 2017 schedules

News of football districts and regions under the new Florida High School Athletic Association playoff point system sent zero shockwaves through Putnam County this week.

Palatka, Crescent City and Interlachen have been moving ahead with their 2017-18 schedules. Interlachen, in fact, is done. Palatka and Crescent City are both one game shy.

To review, the point system was established in the hope of bringing out the best for the playoffs – no undeserving runners-up out of two- and three-team districts, but teams that have proved themselves through the full season against quality opponents.

Classes 5A-8A retain their district structure and district champions automatically qualify. The remainder of the four regional brackets – four districts per region – draw the top point-getters based both on the team’s overall record and that of its opponents. In 1A-4A, where there are fewer schools, there are no districts, just four regions from which playoff participants are based on points and not head-to-head competition.

What could have been a scheduling nightmare – and is for some teams, particularly small-school powers – has been relatively easy around the county.

Palatka retains the District 5-5A opponents its has had the last two years – Baker County, Clay, Menendez, Orange Park and Orange Park Ridgeview. To this, PHS coach and athletic director Bobby Humphries has added four 2016 playoff teams – St. Augustine, Yulee, Ponte Vedra and Belleview – with one hole yet to be filled. Gone from this season’s schedule are Ocala Vanguard, Flagler Palm Coast and Daytona Beach Seabreeze.

If that nondistrict lineup raises eyebrows, remember that these sort of teams ought to boost the strength of schedule and this one’s playoff prospects.

“Six teams went to the playoffs last year (Baker County, Clay and the nondistrict opponents),” Humphries said. “It looks like you want to play teams that are good ands have good records.”

He is struggling to find a 10th team. “My phone’s not been burning up with people wanting to play us,” said Humphries, whose club finished 3-5 in 2016.

The Panthers also need a spring game. The preseason game offers an intriguing opponent – Kissimmee Liberty, a class 7A school under the direction of Humphries’ former Interlachen quarterback, Cory Johns.

Interlachen finds itself in Region 2-4A with nine largely familiar teams, but its focus is going to be on those in the new North Central Florida Football Conference – Keystone Heights, The Villages and Umatilla from the region, plus class 3A Pierson Taylor, 1A Crescent City and 1A Wildwood.

IHS took a leadership role in forming the conference. Participation does not preclude making the playoffs, but gives its members a worthy goal of a conference championship regardless of their playoff prospects.

“We’re playing for a conference championship. If that gives us enough points (to make the playoffs), great,” said Joe Szymanski, 4-5 in his first season as coach. “The conference is a pretty competitive conference. I’m happy with it.”

Szymanski’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing from prospective opponents, but they’re too late. He filled his nonconference slots with Hawthorne, Union County, P.K. Yonge and Avant Garde Academy of Kissimmee.

“It was mostly finding people we could be competitive with,” Szymanski said.

Not only was Crescent City competitive with NCFFC teams this season, it likely would have won the conference. Depending on the coach they select to succeed Al Smith, the Raiders ought to contend in the NCFFC’s inaugural season and could also make the playoffs out of Region 1-4A. That would mean finishing in the upper half of a group that also includes Pahokee, Fort Meade, Frostproof, Wildwood, Hawthorne, Bronson and Williston.

“I think we’re in the middle of the pack,” athletic director Tim Ross said of the region. “I think the conference is a great idea. How do you get kids out if you don’t have a chance to win something? It’ll bring back rivalries. We haven’t played Keystone in a while.”

Crescent City’s nonconference schedule includes Bradford, Hamilton County and, tentatively, Port Orange Atlantic. If Atlantic sticks, it leaves Ross with one game to get.

Andy Hall is sports editor of the Palatka Daily News.

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