For coaches and athletic directors of smaller schools in Lake and Sumter counties, Tuesday's announcement of the Florida High School Athletic Association’s new classification plan was the official start of headaches and sleepless nights.

The announcement was based on a decision in September by the FHSAA's board of directors to approve a new playoff format for football, beginning with the 2017 season. Larger-classification schools — Classes 5A through 8A — likely experienced few, if any, changes, but the elimination of district play in the smaller-classification schools sent many athletic directors scurrying to fill out schedules.

No local team was moved to a new classification, which are based on student-population figures.

South Sumter, Mount Dora, The Villages and Umatilla in Class 4A and Wildwood in Class 1A were placed into regions within their classifications, instead of districts. As a result, schools are no longer required to play each other, which helped fill a 10-game schedule.

Last year, for example, South Sumter, Mount Dora, The Villages and Umatilla were joined in Class 4A-District 4 by Dunnellon. Because every team in Class 4A-4 had to play each other, coaches needed only six additional opponents.

Now, teams in the former Class 4A-District 4 have to find 10 opponents each year.

South Sumter has managed to schedule six opponents for next season, but coach Ty Lawrence said it’s been a struggle to fill the other four slots. It’s a challenge that could be exacerbated by the Raiders' legacy as a powerhouse program — a team that reached the Class 4A state semifinals this year.

“Leesburg is the only local team who has agreed to play us,” Lawrence said. “We felt it was going to be tough to find 10 opponents every year, and that’s definitely been the case. I’ve sent out about 60 emails to other coaches so far and, hopefully, enough will get back with me and we can put together a solid schedule.

“This new format is something (FHSAA football administrator Frank Beasley) really wanted, and I hope it works out like he wants it to, but it has certainly made it tough to put together a schedule.”

Beginning in 2017, the top four teams in each of the four regions in Classes 1A through 4A will advance to the playoffs. A points system based on wins, losses and strength of schedule will determine which four teams in each region advance.

Previously, the top two teams in each district earned automatic postseason berths.

District play will remain in the larger classifications, but only district champions will be guaranteed playoff bids. Four additional teams from each region will also earn at-large bids, based on the same points system in place for the smaller classifications.

“I don’t believe the new playoff format will change much for our region,” Eustis coach Mike Hay said, whose team advanced to the Class 5A regional quarterfinals this year. “One big change this format will do is bring more importance to who teams schedule and how each team will go about getting their points to get in.

“I think it will help bring more excitement back to all regular-season games and not just the district games.”

As was the case with previous reclassifications, teams can petition the FHSAA to move up or down in classification for a variety of reasons. One of the most common reasons to reclassify is for scheduling purposes, and Lawrence said South Sumter has considered petitioning to reclassify to Class 5A for that reason.

“We’ve thought about it, but we really want to stay where the FHSAA believes we should be,” he said.

Any school wanting to become an independent, move up in classification or change districts has until January to petition the FHSAA. Once all requests have been dealt with, final regions and districts will be announced and schools will have until May to finalize their 2017 schedules.

First Academy of Leesburg and Mount Dora Christian Academy were the only local schools that were not impacted by Tuesday’s announcement. Both private schools chose to remain classified as FHSAA independents meaning they can play FHSAA-affiliated opponents, but neither can play for state championships.

The new playoff format, based on a similar system used in Nebraska and other states, is the first significant change to the FHSAA playoff system since an eighth classification was added for the 2005 season.