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Palm Beach Post (Florida)
When the Florida High School Athletic Association voted to eliminate football districts for smaller schools and change the playoff structure for all schools last September, the decision was applauded by many area coaches.
The changes would give a fair shot to all teams, some said, as a new points system would determine most postseason qualifiers, as well as playoff seedings for teams in all classifications.
Points would be awarded using a variety of factors, including number of wins and strength of schedule.
"I think it's long overdue," Brian Dodds, coach of Class 8A Park Vista, told The Post last year. "The top teams would now get in the playoffs."
The new system also gives small schools -- those in Classes 1A-4A -- the flexibility to create suitable game schedules. Schools no longer would be bound to play required district games, and would have the freedom to schedule whoever they wanted.
"I think it's a good thing, because it kind of puts the power in the coaches' hands," Cardinal Newman coach Brian Pulaski said.
But Pulaski also acknowledges there have been some rough patches in filling the Class 3A Crusaders' 10-game schedule.
As a member of the 23-team Palm Beach County Athletic Conference, Cardinal Newman is guaranteed to get games. But as the only private school conference member -- and one of the few small schools -- the Crusaders most likely would be scheduled to play opponents from larger classifications, though the school hasn't shied away from those teams in the past.
"Some of the bigger schools in the county were willing to play us," Pulaski said. "Some weren't. Some of those that played us last year didn't want to schedule us going forward.
"Not being in a district, I wouldn't say it hurt us, but it's definitely challenging."
Other small schools have faced similar scheduling challenges.
Oxbridge Academy, a Class 3A school that is not a member of a conference, had to come up with 10 games on its own.
ThunderWolves coach Brendan Kent and his staff looked outside the tri-county area to find opponents for the 2017 season.
"We're doing some traveling," said Kent, who scheduled a road game with Class 6A Fort Myers this season, but had to agree to return there next year. The ThunderWolves also will play a team from Pennsylvania in Orlando. "We just had to be creative in how we go about our schedule.
"We were making calls for weeks, multiple times a day trying to get teams to come to us. We were willing to travel. It was a struggle."
For Pahokee coach Orson Walkes, it was worse.
Walkes, whose school is the only one from Palm Beach County in rural Class 1A, spent months trying to find teams of comparable size to place on the Blue Devils' schedule.
But he didn't have much luck.
Pahokee is tentatively set to play at least three Class 8A schools -- Seminole Ridge, Palm Beach Central and Vero Beach -- and could end up with several more once Palm Beach County Athletic Conference games are added.
"We're the only 1A team south of Orlando," said Walkes, who called the scheduling process "a nightmare." "So who are we supposed to be playing? Almost everybody on our regular-season schedule is somebody outside of our classification, and bigger than us."
Still, complaints to the FHSAA about scheduling have been rare, according to spokesman Kyle Niblett.
Of the 556 member schools that will play football this season, just a few have reached out to football administrator Frank Beasley with concerns.
"The handful of teams that have made known their challenges to us are the same programs that have traditionally had issues finding opponents in previous years before the new playoff system was implemented," Niblett said. "As we have done before, the FHSAA will continue to make every effort to assist our member schools."
Several small Palm Beach County schools did not need any help.
Two of them -- Class 3A Benjamin and King's Academy -- are members of the nine-member independent Southeastern Football Conference. The SFC is composed primarily of small, private schools.
As conference members, the Bucs and Lions get eight guaranteed games on their schedules.
"We only had to find two nonleague games, which we filled in less than three days," Lions coach Keith Allen said.
Class 3A St. John Paul II Academy didn't have trouble completing its schedule, either.
The Eagles don't compete in a conference, but were able to fill their schedule with teams they had played previously in FHSAA State Series or independent league competition.
This year, however, coach Jeff Dellenbach was particularly mindful of scheduling teams that would maximize the number of points his team could earn.
"We didn't really have a problem getting a full schedule," Dellenbach said. "The problem really lies in trying to figure out who you really should play, which makes it difficult.
"You've got to kind of know who every other team is going to have back. You want to play teams that you can compete against, but you've got to play enough teams that are going to have strong schedules and be good enough to get you points."
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