SEBRING - Winter Haven blocking for Sebring? Fort Mead passing to Bartow? Yes, the madness that is the South-Central All-Star Game is upon us. Saturday night at Firemen's Field, district rivals that previously slugged it out in the regular season will now be teammates in a game that serves to showcase some of Central Florida's best football talent.
"This is the 15th annual event," said Sebring Firemen Inc. Vice President Austin Maddox. "The Firemen have exposed over 1,000 football players in the past 15 years and given $40,000 in scholarships."
"And it's pretty unique, because a lot of these kids who were rivals during the regular season now get a chance to be teammates."
The Sebring Firemen Inc., founded in 1927, is a longtime sponsor of youth athletics in Highlands County. The annual South-Central football game is just another extension of its ongoing efforts to promote local athletes.
"All of the kids participating will get a state championship-styled ring," Maddox said, "along with a DVD with their highlights that will be circulated to various colleges."
Both squads combine for nearly 80 players, with 29 coming from the Central team, which consists of Sebring, Lake Placid, Winter Haven, Bartow, Okeechobee, Ft. Mead and Lakeland Christian. Conspicuously missing from this year's Central team is Avon Park. It's the first time in the event's history that the Red Devils won't have a player representing them.
"We usually have Highlands County's newest head coach lead the Central team," Maddox said. "That would mean Avon Park's Wade Jackson gets to do it. But due to some personal reasons, he declined."
Lake Wales is also absent from the Central team, as the Highlanders are currently in the state playoffs.
However, Sebring and Lake Placid still bring a swath of talent into the game. The Blue Streaks lead the way with seven players: Devin Durham, Gary Demarest, Jacquae Peart, Brandon Fuller, Scott Lane, Frank Mena and Cameron Cobb will all be at Firemen's Field for one last game. The Green Dragons sent Marquavein Copeland, Robert Walton and Eldon McKenzie.
Demarest said he's proud to represent Sebring in the game.
"This is an honor," he said. "It means all my hard work finally paid off and I'm being rewarded for playing well."
Demarest, who is also a starter on the Streaks basketball team, said it's been difficult trying to fit in practice time for both sports this week.
"It was definitely a challenge. Getting back into hitting and wearing pads. The physicality of the game is a lot different than basketball."
The coaches, meanwhile, have their own hurdles to overcome.
The Central team is at a considerable disadvantage to the South team from a numbers standpoint, as the Central team lacks its usual roster depth. The South has nearly 50 players, coming from Charlotte, Port Charlotte, Lemon Bay, North Port, Venice, LaBelle, DeSoto, Hardee and Moore Haven.
"We have some great talent on both teams," said Central assistant coach Mike Avirett. "But due to some scheduling issues we don't have as many players as we're used to."
"Putting this together is always a challenge. And we get a lot of help from the South team coaches, so it's always a joy for us to do this."
Don't expect the game to be a cakewalk, though, just because it's an exhibition.
As Avirett can attest, players know they can vault their recruiting profile or secure a scholarship with a strong performance.
"We usually have a few scouts from Division II schools attend," Avirett said. "And a few years ago, a kid from Avon Park - who didn't get to play much in the regular season due to injury - came out here and won defensive MVP and earned himself a scholarship. He had a heck of a game."
Avirett is acutely aware of the value of an education. Knowing that some of his players on the Central team dream of playing Division I football, he preaches that they shouldn't turn down offers to college just because it's not as prestigious as the University of Florida.
"I tell them, if you've got somewhere to play, and they're offering to pay for even a little bit of your school, then go," he said. "That's my biggest thing. I don't care if it's in Iowa."
Saturday's kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., but the gates open at 5:30. The entry fee is $10 per person and parking is $5. Kids 12 and under get in free.