JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The high school state playoff chase usually goes down to the final week of the regular season.
This year, not so much.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Florida High School Athletic Association was forced to shake up its postseason format this season. That resulted in teams having to decide if they would opt-in to the playoffs or opt-out and try and squeeze in additional games to help fill out schedules that took a beating due to the coronavirus.
For schools that seldom had a shot to reach the playoffs under normal circumstances, that’s an unusual perk in what has been an all-over-the-place 2020.
Interlachen will go to the playoffs for the first time since 1986. Wolfson last went in 2006 and Fernandina Beach last reached the state playoffs in 2007. And Paxon, well, the Golden Eagles have never gone.
The Golden Eagles have played in postseason bowl games and had excellent seasons when only the district champions qualified for the playoffs. The school has never quailed for the FHSAA playoffs. Thanks to the new system, they’re already in.
“We got lucky and it actually worked out in our favor,” said Paxon coach Steve Brown. “Everything that happened with COVID moving everything around, it is great for the kids, it is great for the school.”
While all teams who declared for the postseason qualified, it doesn’t automatically mean that they’ll advance to the regional rounds which are what fans are used to during a normal season.
In the FHSAA’s region realignment, Paxon is in Region 1-5A, which consists of 18 teams. Only 16 teams per region can make the tournament. But since the playoff seeds will be determined by blind draw and not by records, the Golden Eagles (1-2) have the same odds to land a high seed as does anyone else. A low seed in the blind draw means those teams will have to compete in a play-in game or two. The website, FloridaHSFootball.com has a detailed breakdown on how that looks.
“Being the first from the school to get there is great. I’m not worried about how we got there,” Brown said. “I know people are going to say we lucked into it but it doesn’t matter because we are there and we are playing. And if we can make noise in November no one is going to have anything to say otherwise.”
Even though the FHSAA’s rules about this year’s playoffs are public, Brown says his players don’t know they are in the state playoffs yet and he wants to keep it that way.
At least for a few more hours, anyway.
“I am extremely surprised that the kids haven’t figured out anything yet and their parents haven’t told them. If they do know they haven’t said anything to me, so it has been nice,” he said.