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Conference race has new meaning

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002

It's too bad the Sunshine Athletic Conference champion doesn't earn a playoff spot, because whoever wins the SAC title will have earned their way into the playoffs.

But wait a minute. The SAC does decide the playoffs, doesn't it?

With at-large bids on the line, non-district conference clashes such as Zephyrhills-Land O'Lakes and River Ridge-Wesley Chapel on Sept. 13, Land O'Lakes-Pasco on Sept. 27, and Wesley Chapel-Land O'Lakes and Zephyrhills-River Ridge on Nov. 8 can affect postseason fortunes.

Those extra non-district wins also help with favorable playoff seeding, an unanticipated factor that vexed county teams in the postseason last year.

The lesson here: Win the district, and to be on the safe side, try to win the conference, too.

The title has changed hands for three consecutive seasons, from Pasco in 1998 to Land O'Lakes in 1999 to Zephyrhills in 2000 to Wesley Chapel in 2001.

And for the third consecutive year, it is a race that could come down to the wire.

In 2000, Zephyrhills wrested the title away from defending champion Land O'Lakes 33-25 in the closing minutes of the season finale. In 2001, Land O'Lakes came up short again in an 18-0 loss to Wesley Chapel in that finale.

Throw Pasco into the mix, and perhaps a surprise from westside teams Gulf, Hudson, Mitchell, Ridgewood and River Ridge, and the race draws even tighter.

The Gators host the Wildcats in the most highly anticipated rematch of the season on Nov. 8. River Ridge hosts Zephyrhills that night as well, and will look to avenge the Bulldogs' last minute 17-14 win last season.

Who has homefield advantage? Not Wesley Chapel. The Wildcats went 10-0 in 2001, hosting six conference wins, including a 43-14 pasting of Zephyrhills and a historic 71-6 shellacking of Pasco. Now the Wildcats' toughest games -- at Zephyrhills Oct. 4, at Pasco Oct. 25 and at Land O'Lakes Nov. 8 -- are on the road.

No eastside contender hosts all three of its foes. But Pasco may have some homefield edge at W.F. Edwards Stadium, with Land O'Lakes visiting Sept. 27 and Wesley Chapel Oct. 25. Pasco visits Zephyrhills' Bulldog Stadium on Nov. 1, but whenever the 9-Mile Rivalry resumes, forget homefield advantage.

Of the westside teams, Hudson has perhaps the best chance to play spoiler: The Cobras host Zephyrhills Sept. 20, Land O'Lakes Oct. 11 and Wesley Chapel Nov. 1.

Who has the toughest road? Ridgewood, which is on the road against SAC powers Land O'Lakes Oct. 5, Zephyrhills Oct. 12 and Pasco Nov. 9. But more important, the Rams have to concentrate on three big district games against River Ridge, Springstead and Central in between.

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