The Sunshine State Athletic Conference is going places.
Already one of the largest independent football conferences in the state, the SSAC announced recently that it will expand to 26 teams for the 2014 season, creating two leagues with a footprint that stretches from Ocala to Fort Myers to Deerfield Beach.
In addition, the SSAC released its All-Conference teams, with players from First Academy of Leesburg and Mount Dora Bible filling 14 spots, combined, on the First and Second teams, as well as Honorable Mention. First Academy of Leesburg coach Sheldon Walker filled out the league’s postseason honors by being named SSAC Coach of the Year for the season-straight season.
The expansion was finalized during league meetings at Windermere Prep. In essence, the majority of teams that played in the Gulf Atlantic Football Conference has merged with the SSAC.
According to league officials, the SSAC now stretches more than 250 miles from its northernmost team (Ocala Christian) to its southernmost program (Zion Lutheran School). In an effort to reduce traveling costs, the SSAC will split into two leagues — the Coastal League, featuring teams primarily from the northern end of the SSAC including First Academy of Leesburg and Mount Dora Bible, and the Coral League, which is comprised predominantly of teams from the GAFC.
Within each league are two divisions. The Coastal League contains the Beach and Orange divisions, with First Academy of Leesburg and Mount Dora Bible playing in the Orange Division.
The Coral League is home to the Bay and Gulf-Atlantic divisions.
The SSAC was formed in 2008 as an alternative for smaller football programs. Most teams in the SSAC are equivalent to Class 2A and 3A teams in the Florida High School Athletic Association.
The league is independent from the FHSAA, meaning its programs are not eligible to play for FHSAA state championships, but the SSAC conducts its own postseason, includin g a league championship game.
First Academy of Leesburg is the defending SSAC champions, beating 28-20 on Nov. 16 in Orlando.
As a result of leading the Eagles to the SSAC title and Mount Dora Bible reaching the postseason, local players dotted the All-SSAC teams, led by three First Academy of Leesburg and two players from Mount Dora Bible on the First Team. Coaches in the SSAC voted on the teams.
Byron Masoline, who rushed for nearly 1,900 yards and scored 23 touchdowns for First Academy of Leesburg, was a First Team running back. His teammate, lineman P.J. Hambrick, was the only other area player to be named to the league’s top offensive team.
On the defensive side of the ball, Mount Dora Bible linebacker Jordan McPherson and First Academy of Leesburg defensive back Ojay Cummings earned First Team honors.
McPherson had a standout season for the Bulldogs with 70 tackles, including 4 ½ sacks, six tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and four interceptions.
Cummings was the top tackler for the Eagles with 97 tackles — 35 solo and 62 assists. He also had seven tackles for loss, 2 ½ sacks, three interceptions and one fumble recovery.
On special teams, Mount Dora Bible’s Lamar Smith earned First Team honors as a kick returner. Smith, who is also a standout for the Bulldogs’ basketball team, had 437 yards on punt returns with three touchdowns and 230 return yards on kickoffs with one touchdown.
“These awards are a part of the reward for all the work and dedication we have put in over the past year,” Mount Dora Bible coach Dennis Cardoso said. “I say ‘part’ because our team success is wha t led to these guys to be recognized as All-Conference. All of our players should take pride in this success.”
Mount Dora Bible quarterback Daniel Johnson was named to the SSAC All-Conference Second Team, the only local player on the offensive side of the ball. Johsnon passed for 1,400 yards and threw 24 touchdowns in 2013.
On defense, First Academy Leesburg defensive lineman Cameron Bedford, along with linebacker Dude Edwards were selected, as was Masoline as a defensive back. Masoline is one of the few players in league history to earn All-Conference honors on the offensive and defensive side of the ball in the same year.
Mount Dora Bible had four players earn Honorable Mention — offensive lineman John Grant; Tevin Symonette, who picked up honorable mentions as a running back and kick returner; linebacker Chad Simmons and Smith, who picked up a second All-SSAC honor as a running back. First Academy of Leesburg wide receiver Trevor Lloyd also earned Honorable Mention.
First Academy of Leesburg finished the season with a 9-2 record, losing only to Montverde Academy and Mount Dora Bible in the final game of the regular season. Mount Dora Bible went 7-3, losing to Orlando Christian Prep in the SSAC semifinals.
The 2013 season marked the first time First Academy of Leesburg and Mount Dora Bible finished winning records in the same year.