JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Duval County is guaranteed to have one high school football state champion this year.
Harvest Community (7-3) faces Duval Charter (7-2) in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference 8-man football championship on Saturday at Lakeland High School at 1 p.m. The all-local final means Duval County will have one trophy guaranteed to make its way back here.
“It’s really cool. I want to say Coach [Kevin] Wiley and I have battled [in games] before,” said Harvest coach Lonnie Marts. “It’s great that Duval will be represented on both sides of the ball.”
Both programs are relatively new to the world of varsity football. Harvest first played Florida High School Athletic Association football in 2010; Duval Charter’s first season was in 2012.
They both began fielding traditional 11-man programs and found success. The Panthers had back-to-back eight-win seasons in 2013-14, while Harvest had six- and seven-win seasons in 2012-13. Both reached the FHSAA state playoffs.
But numbers dropped at both programs, making fielding competitive teams in 11-man football unrealistic.
Wiley said it just wasn’t possible to field a team in traditional football. The alternatives were few.
Scrap the varsity football programs entirely, or drop down and play a different level of football.
“We had 14 kids [in the program at one point],” Wiley said. “We tried. It didn’t work.”
Enter 8-man football. The field is shorter and narrower. Rosters are capped at 25 players. And it’s ideal for programs that don’t have the student population to field full teams.
“The biggest thing was, ‘do you want to have a football program, keep one alive at the school?’” Marts said. “The 8-man league was a godsend. It came at the perfect time. You still play at a high level. It is still a very physical sport. You don’t have as much damage and injuries to kids in it as you do in 11-man.”
Harvest and Duval initially began play in the Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools, but the 8-man teams in that league eventually shifted into 6-man football. The 8-man teams went into the Sunshine State Athletic Conference, and Harvest and Duval Charter both maneuvered through the playoff brackets to set up an all-904 final. Wiley, who was on University Christian’s coaching staff during their final three state titles, said that he’s using the UC framework for the Panthers’ trek to Lakeland.
“Being at UC and playing in three state championships, these kids will get the same experience,” Wiley said. “We’ll do it just like we did when I was at UC.”
For the Warriors, running back Justino Neikirk leads the team with 1,332 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, while safety Daniel Cary has 103 tackles and cornerback Hayden Foltz (eight interceptions) lead the defense. Quarterback/linebacker Bryce Broward, running back/linebacker Jack Damon and running back Darnell Wilson anchor the Panthers.