Column: Rivalries still big without the sandspurs

Rabbit Smith, the late great Palatka football player and coach, used to talk about one team planting sandspurs on the other’s field and similar tomfoolery in the days leading up to the Palatka-St. Augustine game.

There have been no recent reports of sowing sandspurs, but high school football rivalries are still pretty big hereabouts. Two of the best will be renewed tonight.

There’s the Battle of U.S. 17 in Pierson, where 7-1 Taylor hosts 5-2 Crescent City in a game that could decide the first North Central Florida Football Conference championship, not to mention boost the winner’s state playoff prospects in the new Florida High School Athletic Association point system. Crescent City leads the series 32-18 and has not lost to Taylor since 2003, but this is the first time since then that the Wildcats have entered the game with the better record.

A 51-15 loss last week to class 4A Bradford bounced the Raiders from the class 1A state rankings after getting there for the first time since 2007 – but more significant, dropped them from fourth to fifth in the Region 4-1A point standings. It will take a top-four finish to make the playoffs, but Crescent City is just nine one-hundredths of a point behind Williston and beating a class 3A rival with Taylor’s record would be huge. By the same token, the Wildcats are clinging to fourth in Region 2-3A by less than a point over Winter Park Trinity Prep and need this game, too.

There are no such stakes tonight in Keystone Heights, where the 2-5 Indians host the 2-6 Interlachen Rams, but don’t tell them it isn’t an important game – at least not Interlachen.

One close loss after another to quality opponents has kept this from being the kind of season the Rams were dreaming about in August (and even into this month), but if they can win the last two – a distinct possibility, with struggling P.K. Yonge coming up after Keystone – they’ll have their best two-year victory total since 1995 and ’96. That would be an encouraging sign for a long-suffering program with a boatload of talented underclassmen.

On top of that, it’s Keystone Heights. The Indians lead the series, 28-19, but Interlachen won 14-0 last year and is going for its first back-to-back wins in the rivalry since 1981 and ’82.

Big night for the county tonight.

Not so much for the 2-6 Palatka Panthers, who have the unenviable task of going to Green Cove Springs to play a talented, battle-tested Clay club still trying to secure its spot in the class 5A playoffs after losing the de facto District 5-5A title game to Baker County 21-14 last week. The Blue Devils were on Baker’s 4-yard-line at the end of the game.

Alas, the big question in this one is how many Panthers will be allowed to play after a fight ended last Friday’s 29-7 homecoming defeat of Orange Park at the end of the third quarter.

Inasmuch as both benches emptied – even though order was restored relatively quickly – the FHSAA could hand out so many suspensions that the game could be called off. A decision is due sometime today.

That, of course, is the worst-case scenario, but it is not unprecedented to suspend everyone leaving the bench area during a melee. PHS head coach and athletic director Bobby Humphries said Wednesday he would not bring up a bunch of freshmen who haven’t played or practiced since the junior varsity season ended a couple of weeks ago to face a hungry Clay team with which Palatka’s varsity would struggle to compete.

The mess might also jeopardize the renewal of North Florida’s oldest football rivalry next week, when St. Augustine is slated to host Palatka in a series that dates to 1922. Ideally, it won’t.

The game, frankly, promises to be a squash for the undefeated Yellow Jackets, who lead the series, 51-43-3, and have won 12 of the last 13 meetings. But that’s not the point. For decades, the rivalry has been celebrated as Senior Night for both teams’ players and cheerleaders.

Coincidentally, the last skirmish involving Palatka football took place in Orange Park after the 2014 spring game. The schools aren’t natural rivals and it is a mystery what has brought out the worst in them on a couple of occasions.

It only took a few seconds for things to get out of hand last Friday after the Raiders’

Deonte Domenick body-slammed Palatka quarterback Chamar Dumas in the process of sacking him. Order was restored in relatively short order and no injuries stemmed from the scuffle, but it was best for officials to call it a night. As it was, it marred Palatka’s homecoming and the end of a luckless, six-game losing streak.

Let’s hope the FHSAA doesn’t call it a season.

Andy Hall is sports editor of the Palatka Daily News.

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