Stuart Weiss is the head man of a league at a potential turning point.
Like most independent conferences, the Sunshine State Athletic Conference has, for years, been used as a springboard.
Programs that do not feel like they are ready for district play in the FHSAA often will play in a league like the SSAC. Independent leagues offer a more manageable playing field, something that is very important to small programs as it can be hard to keep kids coming out for the team when a program goes 1-9 each season.
And so, in years past, the roster of teams for the SSAC has seen plenty of turnover each year, with teams coming and going as soon as they felt they could compete in the district they would otherwise play in.
But, as the league continues to grow with each passing season — including the addition of 12 new programs following the 2013 season — the mentality of ditching the SSAC as soon as possible might, itself, be on the way out.
“In the past years, the minute schools could win some games they were gone,” Weiss, who also coaches at SSAC-member Seffner Christian, said. “This year we’re the largest we’ve ever been (27 teams).
“I’d be surprised if we lost more than one team to districts [in the offseason] which is a huge statement to the quality of our organization.”
Weiss said that, in addition to not losing a significant number of teams after the 2014-15 school year, he also expects to add perhaps another 10 members or so. The demand for small programs to play in the SSAC has been on the rise over the past few years and the conference has had to, in some cases, turn schools away.
The conference has three programs that reside within the coverage area for The West Orange Times — Windermere Prep, Central Florida Christian Academy and Legacy Charter — and for those programs the league offers one of its best selling points; the ability to compete for something realistic.
“It gives these kids a chance to play for something,” Windermere Prep coach Jacob Doss, who also serves as the conference’s treasurer, said. “We don’t want to jump into [Class] 3A district [play] until we feel we’re 100 percent ready. … and who knows if we ever will?
“We’re so happy with this Sunshine State Athletic Conference … we’re sitting in a great conference with great leadership.”
For a program like Legacy Charter, started just three years ago, being able to play in the SSAC and win games has proven to be invaluable for coach Jarrett Wiggers as he scours the campus encouraging players to come out for the team — and convincing their parents they boys won’t be punching bags.
“Across the board, we’re pretty even in terms of size and numbers,” Wiggers said of the league. “It helps for me to explain to our parents that if you’re ninth-grader is going to play on our varsity football team, we’re not going to be going up against schools with three-or-400 kids to choose from.”
Under Weiss, who took over as president in 2012, the league has continued to focus on its theme of bringing “like-minded programs” together. Through its rules and structure, the SSAC leadership believes it has achieved, and will continue to achieve, parity through emphasizing that programs play within the rules.
“We want the teams that are going to play with the kids that come in the door,” Weiss said. “People want to play by the same rules and have an opportunity to compete week in and week out. …
“That doesn’t mean you give up quality programs — I believe if [some of our teams] were in districts, they’d make the playoffs.”
The parity in the league was evident a season ago, when a playoff spot had to be decided by a tiebreaker and several games went into overtime.
Another selling point for the league has been its growth in other areas, including a unique playoff and postseason bowl system, dubbed “The Florida Bowl Series,” scholarships awarded to players at season’s end, a “Game of the Week” streamed online, a newsletter, a championship game named “The Florida Bowl” complete with festivities reminiscent of a collegiate bowl game and — perhaps most importantly — an environment where the members seem like they get along and like one another.
In jumping up to 27 teams and preparing to add more sports to its offerings in the coming years (four schools will compete in the first season of the SSAC’s basketball conference this winter), the organization is also confronted with a problem so many other organizations have to deal with — managing growth.
The SSAC aspires to be a true-statewide league, especially as it will cut down on travel costs as more teams that are closer to each other join, but growing too fast and needing a possible tier-system to separate programs that are demonstrably better on a yearly basis are all things Weiss and the rest of the leadership will have to consider.
“We’re looking at all options for the future, we’re on a year-by-year basis,” Weiss said. “We’re trying to manage our growth in the right way — not to grow too fast and outgrow ourselves and create problems.”
The league figures to be flooded with applicants again soon with FHSAA re-districting looming, as some programs may find themselves in an unfavorable district situation and in need of an alternative.
The SSAC, which operates as a democracy with each program getting one vote on such matters, will look to stick to its philosophy of only adding members who fit its description as it continues to grow — and protect the things that have made it so successful in recent years.
Most notably, that includes the ability to compete.
“My goal [as president], my sole goal, is to make sure that the SSAC is a level playing field for all of our participants,” Weiss said. “It doesn’t mean [teams] won’t get beat — but they will be able to compete week in and week out.”