A new era kicked off in August when the football teams from Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka played each other in a Kickoff Classic.
Over the coming three weeks, coaches at 12 small, rural football schools will find out if that era is an appropriate fit.
What has become known as the Sunshine State North Florida League enters into its playoffs this weekend, with the eight highest-ranked teams locked in a tussle for the conference title while the four other conference teams finish with a round-robin series.
The Sunshine State Conference North Florida League is comprised of small schools west of the Apalachicola River, including Port St. Joe, Wewahitchka, Baker, Liberty County and Blountstown.
The new league is the latest attempt to level a playing field many small, rural schools found was becoming increasingly tilted in the wrong direction.
The schools pondered leaving the Florida High School Athletics Association, as more than 20 schools threatened more than a decade before.
At the same time, the FHSAA creation of the so-called Rural League or Class 1A in football proved over time to not be much of a solution, either.
For many coaches, that belief was crystallized after Baker, which had run roughshod over all competition during the season, was waylaid by Madison County in the state title game.
“The state established the rural league but it has really gotten away from what was intended,” said Port St. Joe coach Greg Jordan. “It has gotten to the point that some schools were ready to leave the FHSAA for football.”
Further, several years ago the FHSAA adopted a playoff system that eliminated districts, with just a snap ending some rivalries which had defined some programs.
“That really hurt us,” said Wewahitchka coach Bobby Johns. “The effect on small schools, small communities, that is what hurt us.
“We lost that. (The Sunshine State League) gives us something back.”
Schools have scheduled as they wished the first eight weeks, including a bye week, which Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka both enjoyed this past week.
As one of the top eight teams, Port St. Joe moves into the conference playoffs, traveling to Sneads Friday night.
The winner advances to play the winner of Baker versus Jefferson Somerset while the losers play each other; home sites go to the higher seeded team.
Depending on the results of the semifinals the following week, the top four teams will travel to Tommy Oliver Stadium in Panama City for championship and consolation games scheduled No. 2.
The other four teams will complete the season with a round-robin schedule against each other; Wewahitchka hosts Franklin County Friday, Holmes County the following week and travels to Liberty County the final week.
“At the very least it gives people something to play for, the ‘Sunshine State North League’ state championship,” Johns said.
The playoffs wrap in time to segue into the state playoffs; the FHSAA point system will determine eligibility for the state playoffs among the conference teams.
Schools agreed to a two-year term for the Rural League to prevent upheaval a year from now should some schools believe the concept is not working for them.