High school sports returns to action this week as football teams across Osceola County play their Kickoff Classic exhibition games on Friday night.

Coming off one of the county’s most successful athletic years in recent memory, which included multiple state champions in different sports, deep playoff runs, incredible individual performances, high academic achievement in the classroom, and the expansion of athletic opportunities for student athletes — more of the same is expected as the 2022-23 year begins.

“We have just concluded an incredible year in Osceola sports,” County Athletic Director Ryan Adams said. “We had seven of our athletes win individual state championships this year and St. Cloud won a state title in United Basketball. The county saw several schools add new sports in beach volleyball and lacrosse. We had close to 90 senior athletes sign grant-in-aids to play at the next level. All this was accomplished while our athletes continued to excel in the classroom. We look forward to this upward trend continuing in this new school year.”

The new school year will come with a lot of new changes.

Four teams (St. Cloud, Celebration, Tohopekaliga and Liberty) will start the season with new football coaches. Long-time Osceola wrestling coach Jim Bird, who produced at least one state champion for 16 consecutive years, stepped down in July, meaning that storied program will also have a new coach. Five of those schools (the four mentioned above plus Osceola) will begin the year with new Directors of Athletics.

In addition to new coaches, other changes will be noticeable on the field. Football has eliminated the traditional separation of teams by enrollment (1A-8A) and instead will divide into two divisions called Metro and Suburban. Each division will crown four champions in classes Suburban 1-A to 4A and Metro 1A to 4A. The Metro will consist of school’s from the seven most-populated counties in Florida and will be divided into four classes by population; while the remaining counties – which include Osceola – will play in the Suburban Division. Tohopekaliga, Osceola, Celebration and St. Cloud were all placed in the Class 4A, District 10; Gateway and Liberty will play in Class 3A, District 8, Harmony will play Class 4A, District 11, while Poinciana will play an independent schedule.

The Orange Belt Conference, which consists of all eight county public teams in other varsity sports, has announced a major change in its schedule for team sports. For first time, all those sports will hold bracket-style week-long tournaments to determine the OBC Champion in each sport.

Those tournaments are scheduled for girls’ volleyball (Host School: St.Cloud, Oct. 3-6), Girls’ Soccer (Harmony, Dec. 5-9), Boys Soccer (Gateway, Jan. 17-20), Girls’ Basketball (St. Cloud, Jan. 17-20), Boys’ Basketball (Tohopekaliga, Jan. 23-27), Flag Football (Harmony, Mar. 27-31), Boys’ Volleyball (Celebration, Apr. 10-13), Softball (St. Cloud, Apr. 10-14), Baseball (Poinciana, TBA), Boys’ and Girls Tennis (TBA).

The tournament format is new to some sports, while COVID issues forced the county to go to round robin play to determine a champion in other sports the previous two years.

“The general consensus among our coaches was the tournament route was the way to go,” Adams said. “It creates excitement for the athletes and also creates a lot more flexibility in scheduling for the coaches as it doesn’t tie up as many playing dates for OBC requirements.”

The fall slate, which includes football, cross country, girls’ volleyball, swimming/diving and golf should be an exciting one in the county.

In football, Osceola — long a state power — could challenge for a state championship; while Harmony will field a veteran team and could challenge for a playoff spot. New Tigers’ coach Anthony Paradiso has already began to turnaround the Tohopekaliga program from last year’s 2-8 season and will feature one of the most talked about freshman quarterbacks in the country in Sabby Meassick. St. Cloud features a young, but talented group of athletes under new head coach Mike Short; while Poinciana is hopeful for their first winning season in school history.

The 2022 Volleyball Season promises to be something to watch, as up to five teams (Osceola, Tohopekaliga, Gateway, Harmony and St. Cloud) could challenge for spots in regional play. The Kowboys return a veteran team, including Kaitlyn Taylor, to its 20-win team; while Tohopekaliga – which went 14- 0 against county opposition and won the OBC championship—has a bevy of new transfer talent coming in to support a young team coming up from junior varsity. Gateway returns veterans off its Class 5A regional semifinal team; while the Longhorns and St. Cloud also hope to challenge for district titles.

In golf, look for Harmony and Celebration to try to chase down St. Cloud for OBC titles; while Harmony and Celebration should field outstanding swimming teams. Toho, Celebration and Harmony all return strong runners in cross country, including the Storm’s Catalina Edwards – one of the state’s top performers.

Next spring, St. Cloud will field its first varsity team in boys’ and girls’ lacrosse – joining Celebration and Tohopekaliga as the third county school to add that sport.

“It’s great to have the athletes back,” Adams said. “For each sport and each coach it’s essentially a brand new team with new leadership and new young talent on every roster. The start of each season is the most exciting time of the year as it becomes the athletes’ time to shine after a long off-season.”

Adams added that athletics plays a vital role in the student’s development and thanked all the coaches for their dedication and commitment to their sport. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the overall average GPA of all student athletes in Osceola County topped 3.00; with many team’s posting significantly higher GPAs,” Adams said. “Athletics teaches the values of hard work, team work, and discipline and that would not be possible with the dedication, devotion and hard work of our many coaches.”