Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect a clearer statement on the understandable difficulty in obtaining a consensus from each side on what transpired.
A bench-clearing brawl after the final whistle sounded marred what had been a tightly-fought physical boys soccer game in Eastpoint Wednesday night.
Port St. Joe walked off the field with a 3-0 victory over Franklin County, and both teams walked away without shaking hands. The referee issued a stern warning that were he to report the melee to the Florida High School Athletic Association, both schools would be fined $2,500.
The fight appeared to erupt after one of the Franklin County players went across the field to confront a Port St. Joe player near the visitor’s bench in advance of what would have been the traditional handshaking session. In the complicated onfrontation that followed, a St. Joe player struck a Seahawk that prompted blood to pour down the player’s face.
As soon as the fight erupted, Franklin County Athletic Director Dirk Strunk, Seahawk Coach Bill McCullough and Tiger Shark Coach Bobby Alexander, and members of their staffs, ran out to separate the players and urge calm.
“I think the physicality of the game is not something we’re super used to,” said Alexander, in an interview after the game. “I don’t know if that contributed to the end of the game stuff, because they’ve been beaten and battered both ways. I’ll leave that alone.
“The officials are responsible to control the game, and you know, when you’re a boy out there and you start pushing each other around, that can escalate. Because nobody wants to back off,” he said.
Tension had also emerged earlier in the game when the N-word and anti-Hispanic slurs were heard on the field. Each side has claimed that such language had been directed at their players. The referee warned the player about their acting in an unsportsmanlike way, but did not issue any yellow cards.
“I’m not for that, but it’s going to happen,” said Alexander. “And just like in life, you can’t allow what people say make us lose our minds.”
Franklin County Superintendent Steve Lanier said he planned to look deeper into what happened, but voiced anger after hearing that a St. Joe player had thrown the first punch.
‘There’s no place for that unsportsmanlike conduct,” he said.
Gulf County Superintendent Jim Norton sounded a conciliatory note, stressing that both communities “love and respect” each other. Tracy Browning, a member of the high school’s coaching staff, said he expects some sort of disciplinary action will be taken after the investigation of the incident is complete.
“When you have a rivalry that’s filled with passion, unfortunately these things do happen,” said McCullough. “I talked with the Port St. Joe coach, and we’ve agreed to both handle the situation in a similiar manner, because we want this thing to be a healthy rivalry.
“We’re going to move forward,” he said. “We’re going to play Port St. Joe one, and maybe two more times. Neither one of us are proud of the way our programs acted last night. We’re going to handle this internally and quickly.”
Norton said that “we value very much our spirited rivalry with Franklin County. The rivalry with so many sports has been very heated and contentious and fun, a rivalry for both our communities. That (the fight) is the exception and not the rule.
“We look forward to hosting them. We’ll welcome them and make sure to put things in place and let them cool off,” Norton said.
The Tiger Sharks are slated to host the second game of the rivalry on Wednesday, Jan. 5.
The Tiger Sharks struck first in the opening period, nailing a goal by junior Jaydon Gant followed by another quick score by senior Justice Peacock, and then a third oneby sophomore Taylor Burkett, all before the first water break. After that, the two teams played to a stalemate, with two tight defenses bottling up their opponent.
“Franklin is much improved, and they put a lot of work into their program,” said Alexander, as his team moved to 5-5 on the year, and 2-0 in district play. The Seahawks fell to 7-2, and 1-1 in district play.
“Coming over here we knew this would be a really tough game, and so we asked our boys to make sure they just played well, that they used the field and not try to just boot and chase, and work their way down the field,” he said. ““The first two goals were just the work of them playing in the midfield well, holding the ball and making good quality runs.
“Overall hats off to Franklin, they played a great game,” said Alexander.
“They scored three quick goals and we had the oopportunity offensively and we did not capitlize on our opportunities,” said McCullough. “We’re closing the gap between the programs. We’re getting there.”