High school football kickoff: Five biggest storylines for 2016

Fort Dorchester celebrates after winning the 2015 Division I-AAAA state championship at Williams-Brice Stadium. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

With football practice starting Friday for high school teams across the state, there are countless storylines to follow in the Lowcountry. Among them are new football programs at Charleston Charter and Oceanside Academy, new coaches at a handful of schools, and a major shakeup in the realignment of classifications and regions.

Here’s a look at what could be the five biggest stories heading into the 2016 season:

The five classification system in the South Carolina High School League is finally a reality -- perhaps a decade late, but here nonetheless. There will be no more dual state champions in three classifications, as the state moves from seven state championships to five. Eight Lowcountry schools were classified in the new Class AAAAA league and form Region 7-AAAAA. Four of the 10 biggest schools in the state now reside in the tri-county area, led by the state’s largest school, Wando. Summerville (third), Ashley Ridge (ninth) and Fort Dorchester (10th) all reside in Dorchester County District 2.

James Island is the smallest area school to be included in Class AAAAA with 1,635 students. That, by the way, is 2,430 fewer students than Wando. Perhaps the biggest positive of the new alignment is that Region 7, with eight teams, will qualify six teams for the state playoffs.

Fort Dorchester, which won the Division I-AAAA state title last season, is expected to be one of the top teams in the state again this year. The Patriots look to extend their 15-game winning streak and become the state’s first Class AAAAA champion. One has to wonder how the program handles being the hunted after chasing teams for many years. And, remember, Fort Dorchester had a few close calls during its title run last season.

The Patriots have arguably the state’s top quarterback, junior Dakereon Joyner. But Joyner will have four new starting offensive linemen and Fort Dorchester lost a 1,600-yard rusher in Datron James. A solid front seven defensively, however, should be the strength of this year’s team.

Over the last four years, the Lowcountry has seen head coaching changes at four of the area’s top football programs. Stratford, Summerville, Goose Creek and Berkeley all have brought in new head coaches since the 2013 season.

The “Dean” of Lowcountry football coaches is now Timberland’s Art Craig, who is beginning his 16th season at Timberland and his 19th season overall in the area (three years at Cross). Fort Dorchester’s Steve LaPrad is entering his 14th year as a head coach.

Wando wide receiver OrTre Smith has said he will announce his college commitment on Sept. 11. Smith, considered the state’s overall top prospect by most recruiting services, will likely decide between Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida, with the two in-state schools rumored to be the frontrunners. Getting the decision out of the way early in the season should be good for Smith and fans should look for another huge season from the 6-4, 215-pound senior.

A staple of Lowcountry football for more than 40 years, the annual Sertoma Football Classic has some tough decisions to make in the near future.

Already, this year’s charity event is without several of the biggest attendance draws with Dorchester County schools Summerville, Fort Dorchester, Ashley Ridge and Woodland opting to hold their own jamboree directly in competition with the Sertoma Classic.

If the Dorchester County jamboree is successful, might Berkeley County look at a similar option? If schools like Berkeley, Stratford, Cane Bay, Timberland and Goose Creek opt to try their own thing, the Sertoma Classic would be in real trouble.

Berkeley County did attempt a jamboree several years ago, without much success due to bad weather. However, that jamboree was on a different weekend than Sertoma.