The rivals must both win Friday to set up a first-ever playoff meeting in Round 2.
It's a shorter road to state, but not necessarily an easier one for Clearwater Central Catholic and St. Petersburg Catholic.
With just one win CCC and SPC can go further than either has gone in the playoffs. That one win for both also would bring a first-ever CCC-SPC playoff game.
Playing in the new Class 2B puts the Marauders and Barons in a condensed playoff bracket. With fewer teams CCC (7-2) and SPC (6-3) start their playoff runs on Friday in the region semifinals, instead of the quarterfinals like most classes. If both win, they will meet next week in the region final, one step from the state semis.
Class 2B is a break-off of the smaller schools from 2A. The change pits CCC and SPC against teams whose schools have similar enrollments. The previous enrollment gap in 2A was as large as 1,000.
"It's more fair," SPC coach Dan Mancuso said. "We feel we have more of an equal shot now."
Marauder coach Mike Jalazo understands the reason for the change, but said he wishes there were eight teams in the region instead of four. There's no room for at-large bids and the four-team region means your first game will be against a district champion or runner-up.
"I don't like the way they're doing the playoffs," Jalazo said. "I like to see more teams get a chance."
One advantage to a smaller bracket is having a bye week between the state semifinals and championship game. Before getting to that point, the Marauders and Barons have to focus on Friday's region semifinals. CCC hosts Frostproof, a perennial power which may not be as strong as year's past, but still has quality players and coaching. SPC travels to Fort Pierce John Carroll, which defeated Frostproof to win District 5. Mancuso said it's a team his Barons match up well with.
Jalazo said he's trying to keep the team focused on Friday.
"I haven't even uttered St. Pete Catholic or John Carroll," Jalazo said.
Still, it's hard not to think about playing your biggest rival in the playoffs.
"We have such a heated rivalry every year. The intensity of that game will be sky high," Jalazo said.
Mancuso said he would love a chance to play CCC again. The Barons lost to the Marauders this season 21-8. The game got a little out of hand near the end, resulting in an ejection for CCC. The stakes of moving on to the state championship will only add to the frenzy.
"It would be our dream because we feel that the better team didn't win," Mancuso said. "We had an off game. ... So we really hope we would have another shot."
If the Marauders win, they host the next game and either way SPC will play on the road.