The rivalry between West Orange and Apopka in football is of a caliber that many other Central Florida schools and rivalries can only hope to achieve.
WINTER GARDEN The West Orange Warriors hardly could contain their jubilation.
In the moments after the Warriors defeated Apopka in the second round of the FHSAA Class 8A State Playoffs, teammates hugged and high-fived — jumping up and down while hollering in celebration.
For members of the Apopka Blue Darters, walking back to the visitor’s sideline after the two teams shook hands, it must have stung in ways only fellow athletes could understand.
It might be lost on those young men in the moment, but the excitement the Warriors displayed was a subconscious sign of respect — a sign that the moment was bigger than the fact that the victory had advanced the program deeper into the state playoffs than it had ever gone before.
No, that celebration was all about West Orange beating the Blue Darters for the first time in the state playoffs, almost a year to the day after Apopka embarrassed the Warriors on their home field — that celebration was about West Orange knocking off a team whose seniors had played in three consecutive state championship games, winning two.
It was a cathartic moment for players such as Eddie McDoom and Naquan Renalds, who remember losing to Apopka as far back as their Pop Warner days playing for the West Orange Wildcats.
Make no mistake: The Warriors’ excitement is one the sincerest forms of (a begrudging) respect.
And, therein lies a greater truth for both programs: How lucky are the Warriors and the Blue Darters to have a first class rivalry in the state of Florida? How lucky are the two programs in west and northwest Orange County to have an authentic, tradition-filled rivalry?
Sure, it has not always been that way.
I remember interviewing a player for Apopka in 2012, when I was a freelancer covering high-school sports. The Blue Darters had just beat up on the Warriors, and I asked about the rivalry. He (rightly so) corrected me: There is no rivalry if one team wins every game.
Luckily, that has changed.
The Warriors have now won three of the past four meetings, and it is safe to say that at least since coach Bob Head arrived at West Orange, the rivalry is legitimate — and how great for both programs? Having a rival you despise — within reason, hopefully — is one of the great experiences of being an athlete and a fan.
For the Warriors, that rival is based on geographic proximity and the two schools’ history as two of the older programs in Orange County.
But it’s also more than that — Apopka has won state championships, and West Orange has not. Over the past few years, the Blue Darters have been the class of Central Florida, if not the entire state — a role the Warriors are dying to assume.
Now, after losing three of the past four meetings, it will be the Blue Darters who are chomping at the bit to defeat the Warriors next fall. These two programs have a game on their schedule every season guaranteed to pack and sell out the home team’s stadium — something of which other athletic directors can only dream.
So, here’s to many more exciting meetings between Apopka and West Orange in the years to come.
Someone will win, someone will lose — but the real winner will always be the fans who get to experience the very best in high-school football in Florida.