At a steadily increasing rate, Florida's high schools are rushing to bask in the glow of the Friday night lights of varsity football.
But with some struggling to fill their rosters, canceling a game because a few football players get the flu and shortening another game because a team suffered too many injuries, the question is are some of these upstart programs ready for the spotlight?
Since 2000, 136 new 11-man football teams have joined the Florida High School Athletic Association, an average of slightly more than 11 per season.
In Lee and Collier counties, 11-man football teams have increased by 81 percent since 2000, from 16 teams to 29 in 2012. That's 2.5 times the state (32 percent) and 14 times the national (5.8 percent) growth rates during that same span.
Adding 11-man football is a complicated and expensive process for a school. But it's not without benefits, especially for private and charter schools, whose athletic programs often aren't viewed as desirable by prospective students and their parents if they don't include football.
"I don't like to think of it as competing for students but at the same time, if we don't have our seats filled, we're not in operation," said Oasis High athletic director Jason Bowman, whose school added 11-man football this year. "And if we don't have a full-fledged varsity athletic program, it's a lot more difficult to have our seats filled."
More difficult, it seems, is for schools to ensure their eagerness to get into the game doesn't supersede the ability of their players to handle the rigors of varsity football.
"You would never want to make the game more important than the safety of the kids," said Southwest Florida Christian football coach and athletic director Mark Ackerman. "But I think some schools may be pushing too hard and that's what's happening."
SCHOOLS GET LITTLE GUIDANCE
Florida High School Athletic Association spokesperson Corey Sobers said the organization is sensitive to the safety of its student-athletes. But as far as determining a football team's readiness for varsity play, that's up to each member school.
That's why teams are allowed to compete with as few as 11 varsity players. Neither the FHSAA nor the National Federation of State High School Associations, which sets the rules for varsity football, has a minimum roster requirement for an 11-man team.
Ackerman's team opened its third varsity season on Aug. 31 against Orlando's Central Florida Christian, which suited up 15 players for the game.
"Two years ago when we scheduled that game we were the bottom-dweller and they would have been considered the better team," said Ackerman, whose 39-member squad won 28-8. "But they've lost some kids. At a small school, that can happen at any given time.
"But I wouldn't want to play with less than 24 kids."
Central Florida Christian is one of 13 schools in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference, which uses FHSAA guidelines for the sport, but holds its own football playoff series. Another one of the conference's schools -- Master's Academy of Vero Beach, which is in its first year of varsity 11-man football -- canceled its game on Sept. 7 because a few of the players on its tiny roster came down with the flu.
SSAC commissioner Shane Rocker said none of its member schools have more than 250 students and the roster size for the league's teams range from 13 players to 35.
"If we're all in the 15-30 range, I don't feel that bad about it," he said. "Two years ago, a team finished the season with 11 guys. I guess if you want football bad enough at your school, you play with 11.
"Is there a safety concern? With that number I think there is. But I can't tell a school what to do. We use the (FHSAA guidelines) and whatever they allow, we allow."
SIZE ISN'T ONLY CONCERN
With more than 600 students, Oasis High had no problem getting players for its new 11-man program. The Sharks list 34 players on their varsity roster and coach Jeff Brady said there's nearly 60 in the program.
After opening its inaugural season with a 52-0 victory over fellow first-year program Marco Island Academy, Oasis visited St. John Neumann on Sept. 7.
In a little more than a quarter-and-a-half of action, the Sharks saw seven starters leave the field with injuries, three serious enough to require trips to the hospital. Trailing 45-0 and faced with the prospect of sending inexperienced freshmen and sophomores into a game against a more seasoned opponent, Brady huddled with Neumann coach Steve Howey. The two mutually decided to end the game with 4:27 remaining in the second quarter.
"I told him at midfield as an organization from top to bottom, we were not prepared to keep going," Brady said. "It was my responsibility to act out there whether it's the most popular decision or not. The way it was going, I didn't feel like it was in the best interest of the program to keep going. My No. 1 priority is to protect these kids."
Oasis senior Austin Beach, who left the Neumann game with a bicep injury, said he didn't feel like his team was overmatched against the Celtics. While he admitted he and his teammates were embarrassed the game ended early, he said he believes Brady made the right decision.
"Coach (Brady) is trying to do what's best for us," Beach said. "When we watched the game film, we were actually doing OK at the beginning. But then things started going really bad and all our starters were getting hurt."
Howey took over the St. John Neumann program in 2002, two years after it was restarted after being shut down following the 1986 season. He said he knows the difficulty in starting a varsity football team.
"I can understand where they were coming from -- this was not a competitive game," Howey said. "They still have games to play and need to be healthy going down the line.
"I can understand the enthusiasm to get into a varsity program. But it's tough to compete with teams who have played and practiced together for three or four years. Our kids have done that and it showed."
Brady and Howey said none of the injuries resulted because Neumann's players physically overwhelmed Oasis.
"It was a freak type of thing," Brady said. "They could have happened against any team, experienced or not."
Brady said he expects five of the seven injured players back for this Friday's game with Community School of Naples, one of four games against varsity programs remaining on the Sharks' schedule. They also have contests against Immokalee's and Baker's junior varsity teams.
Marco Island athletic director Roger Raymond said he definitely took note of the Oasis result. And it got him thinking about his team's Nov. 9 matchup with First Baptist.
"It was a situation where they needed a game and we needed one," said Raymond, whose school lost a pair of scheduled junior varsity games against Evangelical Christian which isn't fielding a JV squad this season. "But I don't think we're ready for a game like that."
Marco Island has 27 players on its varsity team, which represents nearly half of the school's male student population, and doesn't have a freshman or junior varsity team this season. Raymond said the school considered playing in a 7-man league, "but we thought if we have 11-man, we'd get a lot of interest."
"It's a work in progress, Raymond said. "The kids are working hard, the coaches are working hard and in a year we'll be a lot better."
SUCCESS CAN BE ELUSIVE
After the Gateway Charter football team closed out the 2011 season with a 49-0 loss to Coral Springs Charter, the Griffins' 32nd consecutive loss, athletic director Cameron Yearsley knew something had to change.
"All that losing, it wears and tears on a program," he said. "We have a hard enough time getting kids to come out."
Since starting its program in 2005, Gateway Charter has had six coaches. It also had its lone winning season, a 6-3 finish in 2007, wiped out after the FHSAA found former coach Josh Ballinger violated the organization's rules against recruiting, which also landed the program on restrictive probation for a year. The subsequent losing, plus the lack of an on campus stadium -- Gateway's playing its home games at East Lee County this season -- also added to a disconnect between the student body and the football program.
So this year, Gateway Charter opted to remove itself from District 4A-6 and play the 2012 season as an independent, meaning it's ineligible to compete in the FHSAA state playoffs. However, the Griffins also aren't locked into playing district games against teams like Dunbar, which defeated Gateway 80-0 last season. Instead, the Griffins scheduled Oasis, Marco Island and a handful of other developing football programs this season.
"It was either do this or we wouldn't end up with a football program the way it was going," Yearsley said. "Most of the games we have this year we can compete and have a chance of winning. That'll go a long way toward the morale of the team and improving school spirit."
The change has already paid off for Gateway, somewhat. The Griffins, who were outscored 485-17 last season, nearly snapped their losing streak last Friday against Homestead Keys Gate, losing 14-13 when their game-winning field goal attempt was blocked in the final seconds.
Whether that performance herald a significant turning point remains to be seen. But the Griffins' experience is proof positive that despite its allure, the difficulty in starting a successful 11-man football can last well beyond a team's inaugural season.