By JAMAL THALJI
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 2000
ANYWHERE BUT TAMPA -- Icome to bury Hillsborough County, not to praise it. Good riddance. So long, see ya.
Don't let the door hit you ... never mind.
Our long national nightmare is finally over. No, not that nightmare. The Bucs are still 6-5 (what, did I miss something?).
I refer to the nightmare that ruined the seasons of five Pasco County football teams; of two senior classes.
When the 2001 season begins, every team in Pasco County will have a more equitable chance to advance to the playoffs than in the previous two seasons (not that the playoffs have been equitable, either).
Tuesday, Pasco County was divided into two districts with Hernando County. But when the FHSAA divided Pasco County's eight teams into four disparate and badly lopsided districts two years ago, there was no glossing over how bad it would be.
By population numbers alone and with no regard to geography or competitive reality, Pasco and Zephyrhills were pitted against Jesuit, Jefferson, Robinson and Blake; River Ridge against Hillsborough and Chamberlain; Wesley Chapel against Tampa Catholic and Berkeley Prep.
That's not even including the Pinellas County schools. Of course, Pasco County teams have played Hillsborough and Pinellas teams before.
But the past two seasons, Pasco County has been gripped in a football drought. It was a disaster waiting to happen ... usually right after the coin toss.
The coaches put a brave face on, of course. You play the cards you're dealt. We've played these teams before. You have to rise to the level of each opponent. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
When the '99 season began, disaster fell as expected. The Hillsborough County kids were bigger, faster, just plain better. The tightly packed demographics of Hillsborough County allow those schools to survive the exodus of potential athletes who would rather make their car payments than a sack. The same lack of interest has bled Pasco County, an area whose population can no longer generate the bodies or interest needed to compete south of the border.
The cold, hard reality is that Pasco County football is meant to be played against opponents from Pasco, Hernando or Citrus counties.
Which is why Hillsborough County romped. Just look at the numbers in the accompanying box. Every week, a new low. A fake punt. Still passing with two minutes left. The running clock. Another touchdown. Gee, are the starters still in there? Wesley Chapel's victories over Tampa Catholic and Berkeley Prep this season salvaged just a bit of Pasco County pride.
Worse still is all the elite, super programs Pasco County had to play; teams that exchanged the area's top high school athletes like trading cards.
Matt Glavich was a freshman quarterback at Pasco, then a sophomore in '99 at Tampa Catholic whipping Wesley Chapel, then a junior at Jefferson this season, picking Pasco and Zephyrhills apart. Last season, Jefferson linebacker Elijah Dukes inflicted all sorts of punishment on Pasco and Zephyrhills. He did the same to River Ridge this season, playing for Hillsborough. Then there's the private schools.
School choice, indeed. Too bad Pasco County didn't have a choice. Or a chance.
Now, the new districts make a lot of sense. Economic sense, for one, because it was ridiculous to expect Hudson to drive to Robinson and vice versa. Nor did they exactly pack the stands over here to watch Chamberlain and Jefferson whip the locals. The local rivalries are restored as well.
The new districts would have made a lot more sense this season. Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel could have been playoff teams. But it's over now. Then again, the new districts are merely "tentative."
Which means there's still an outside chance Lakeland will win the Sunshine Athletic Conference next season. Watch out for the coin toss.