Larry Blustein

Larry Blustein: Southeastern Football Conference puts its teams on equal footing

Westminster Academy running back Joseph Vairo (15) carries the ball during the football game against Coral Springs Charter Panthers on Oct. 30.
Westminster Academy running back Joseph Vairo (15) carries the ball during the football game against Coral Springs Charter Panthers on Oct. 30. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

When the Southeastern Football Conference was first talked about four years ago, one of the main concerns of coaches and parents was the recruiting exposure the “independent” league would receive.

The Southeastern Football Conference was designed to have programs in South Florida compete on a level playing field, but without the chance to compete for a state title players could get less college exposure and, in the process, lose out on that valuable chance to be recruited.

While low exposure was evident the first two seasons, this year changed everything as the league’s 12 teams produced several quality football players and fielded teams that were in the spotlight from the start of the season until the Nov. 15 championship game at FAU.

The title game — which featured unbeaten Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian and Coral Springs Charter — not only attracted attention from the almost 6,000 fans who attended the championship game, but also from college coaches across the country who wanted to see film and get information about players.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for the smaller schools in South Florida to compete on a level playing field while producing college prospects,” said Fort Lauderdale Westminster Academy head coach Jake Sorg. “The games were competitive, and every team in the conference had some quality talent on the roster.”

While the league was designed to make the entire season interesting and keep nearly every team in the hunt for a playoff spot, it was also a chance for some players who sat the bench at larger schools to see extensive playing time at Northern Division schools like West Palm Beach The King’s Academy, Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest, North Palm Beach Benjamin School and Boca Raton Pope John Paul.

Add in Coral Springs Charter and unbeaten champion Calvary Christian, and you had talented prospects as well as an elite coach such as former collegiate coach and coordinator Kirk Hoza, who has elevated Calvary to a level where the Eagles do more than compete.

“We have our share of outstanding young men on this team,” Hoza shared. “They are not only quality young men, but very good athletes.”

Calvary boasts Defensive Player of Year Tristan Peyton, a 6-2, 215-pound linebacker, as well as fellow seniors in receiver/defensive back Parker Collins, lineman Vas Furman and defensive back Rod Sylvester. The Eagles also boast standout junior lineman Storm Sims (son of former Miami Dolphin Keith Sims) and one of South Florida’s most talented sophomore quarterbacks in Nick Holm.

Coach Adam Miller’s Coral Springs Charter squad was equally talented with college prospects Marcos Hilera (senior lineman), juniors Chris Judge, Joshua Paul, Calvin Jackson and Kalen Carson, and sophomore standout defensive end Michael Carrion, among others.

“This is a very talented and young team we have,” Miller said. “Many of our players compete year-round, which helps give them exposure.”

Pine Crest, which advanced to the quarterfinals, boasted seniors Patrick Haley, Isaac Mercado and Nick Nolting.

The Southern Division was loaded with prospects and quality teams as well. Sorg’s Westminster Academy was stacked with elite prospects such as senior and Co-Offensive Player of the Year Johnnie Gaines, a running back transfer who came in this season from St. Thomas. Fellow seniors Les Dalger, Ryan Moore, Micah Smith, Houston Underwood and Joe Vairo were all tremendous football talents, and sophomore linebacker Zack Ledbetter is setting himself up to be one of the best in the Class of 2017.

In addition to Westminster Academy, coach Willie Trimmer’s Miami LaSalle, which boasted seniors Terrill Hanks, Manny Readon and Montrel Thomas — and junior John Pierce — was among the Southern Division’s most talented teams. Trimmer, a longtime coach, was the biggest proponent of the league and the exposure the teams have received.

“I have nothing but great things to say about this league and the way we have been covered by colleges and the media,” he said. “Our kids have gotten plenty of exposure by attending events in the offseason as well.”

Florida Christian (Alex Bosque, Nick Tejedor and Paul Gonzalez), Archbishop Curley (Richard Champagne and Beethoven Moise), Boca Raton St. Andrew’s Academy and Tavernier Coral Shores have also been competitive.

Coral Shores relished the opportunity to compete in a conference where the teams were on a level playing field. Coach Ed Holly had some of the more publicized players in the league, such as Co-Offensive Player of the Year George Jacobsen, his twin brother, Henry, as well as seniors Paul Pauchey and Eddie Dunn, and juniors Chris O’Berry and David Williams.

“This league really provided our young men with plenty of exposure,” Holly said. “Not just from a football standpoint, but the SFC also rewarded the players in the league for doing well in the classroom.”

As Calvary wrapped up the title this year, the SFC was pleased in knowing that the attendance in the championship game at FAU would have been the third-largest in last year’s FHSAA championship weekends (eight games) in Orlando!