Season highlight include new playoff formats and Forest Hill rebirth

6:39 p.m Friday, Dec. 15, 2017 Sports
Forest Hill’s Darius McClendon, running against Dwyer in an October game, helped lead the Falcons to a surprising 7-2 season. (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)

The 2017 football season came to a close last weekend, and it was a good one for many Palm Beach County teams.

Thirteen area teams made the postseason in the first year of a new playoff format instituted by the Florida High School Athletic Association.

Seven of them won at least one playoff game, while two played for state championships.

Oxbridge Academy and Atlantic both traveled to Orlando last Saturday to compete for the Class 3A and Class 8A state titles, respectively.

The ThunderWolves lost to Hollywood-Chaminade Madonna on a last-second field goal, while the Eagles fell to Orlando-Dr. Phillips.

Here are our four takeaways from the season:

1. The playoff points system worked out, mostly: Under the old playoff system last year, 13 Palm Beach County teams made the postseason. Under the new points system, 13 Palm Beach County teams made the playoffs. Locally, there were no major snubs — though Park Vista had a close call when the Cobras were in a spot where they would’ve clinched a runner-up spot under the old system. Once in the playoffs, the way the brackets played out worked nicely for local teams, as Atlantic (thanks to some upsets) and Oxbridge Academy both hosted all their games leading up to the state championships. We also nearly got an all-Palm Beach County regional final in Class 8A. Some kinks may need to be worked out, and small schools may be well-served by the return of districts for scheduling purposes. But overall, things went pretty well, at least for Palm Beach County teams.

2. Defense wins: The top teams in Palm Beach County all had one thing in common: great defenses. Atlantic, Oxbridge and Palm Beach Central, in particular, boasted strong units that held opponents to an average of about 8.6 points per game combined. Other good teams also had strong defenses, like Park Vista and Dwyer. What ultimately was the downfall for some of those squads was offense, as Atlantic struggled to score only seven points in the state title game, and Dywer lost its last playoff matchup 6-5.

3. Forest Hill proved us wrong: Back in August, we made our predictions for which area teams would make the 2017 postseason. Some we got right. Some we got wrong. A few others we got way wrong. Forest Hill belongs in the “way wrong” category. Coming off a 2-7 season and prepared to start a new quarterback, the Falcons were picked to finish fifth out of six teams in District 13-7A. Instead, Forest Hill finished second behind perennial power Dwyer and clinched its first playoff berth in 21 years. The Falcons are young, and have a talented crop of running backs plus an athletic quarterback in Darius McClendon, who will be a senior next year. They’ll be back.

4. Large schools have some work to do: There were plenty of success stories among the area’s larger schools (Classes 5A-8A) in 2017, with six of those making the playoffs, and nine finishing with winning records. On the flip side, there were a number of teams that struggled. Two area big schools did not win a game this year, while six others won three games or less — including four in the same district. With opponents’ records factoring into the new playoff formula, that’s a cause for concern among some larger schools that play in weaker districts. Park Vista barely made it into the playoffs in Class 8A despite carrying a 7-2 record, and the Cobras’ weak district schedule was a contributing factor. The bottom four teams in District 10-8A finished a combined 6-30, which doesn’t help their opponents’ strength of schedule. Tweaks could be made to the playoff system in the offseason. In the meantime, new coaches will be in place next year at two big schools (Lake Worth and John I. Leonard), and there is hope for improvement there, and elsewhere.

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