NICEVILLE — Tim Hatten’s calendar remains free of dates circled in red ink.
The Crestview football coach knows it’s cliché, but his team plays every week. No one game is more important than another.
Not even Niceville.
The Bulldogs play the Eagles at 7 p.m. Friday in Eagles Stadium in a game that will determine the District 3-6A championship.
“With the new playoff format, you’ve got rivals, but you don’t really circle anybody,” Hatten said. “You just play every week, as stupid as it sounds. Every game’s got a point value to it no matter who it is. (Niceville’s) got a point value just like West Florida had a point value.”
Never mind the tradition or the pageantry between the two best teams in District 3-6A going head to head. Never mind both are coming off bye weeks as healthy as they have been all season. Never mind the season series stands at 2-2 during the past four years with each team stealing a victory on the road. Never mind Crestview thwarted the Eagles’ fourth-quarter comeback last year with a sack near the Niceville goal line.
No, to both coaches, this game matters as much as any other.
“Well, I think there’s enough motivation for everybody to go around,” Eagles coach John Hicks said. “It’s a district championship, opportunity to play at home in the playoffs. I think that’s plenty of motivation for everybody.”
For Niceville (6-1, overall 2-0 District 3-6A) and Crestview (6-0, 2-0), Friday’s game is only another step toward the playoff and the ultimate goal of every football program.
“In the long haul, when you’re trying to win championships, I think a regular season game is just a game that leads to things that are more rewarding,” Hatten said. “I wouldn’t put a value on it like a diamond. I think, I don’t know this to be a fact, but at this stage both of us are probably in pretty good shape to make the playoffs regardless of what happens the rest of the year.”
Crestview is projected as a second seed in Region 1-6A, trailing only undefeated St. Augustine. The Bulldogs average 40.33 playoff points per game. Niceville is projected as fifth seed, averaging 38.43 points per game, a full 5.3 points ahead of Nease, the final wild card team.
Neither team is in danger of missing the playoffs, though home-field advantage is on the line.
“The way it’s so tangled, you can’t really tell until you play last your game,” Hatten said.
Many area coaches have echoed that sentiment as the season has progressed, preferring to focus on winning rather than playing the numbers game the playoff seeding system has created. Hicks said he hasn’t checked in on Niceville’s ranking in a couple of weeks, and when he did, it didn’t seem all that different.
“The top two teams, the district champion and the runner up, will be the ones that go in,” Hicks said.
The point system and the impending rivalry game have not had any effect on the locker rooms, either. Teams aren’t as concerned with history as much as they once were, Hatten said. Some coaches don’t stress it and players prefer to look ahead.
“What somebody’s done in the past is really not prevalent; it’s all about now,” Hatten said. “This is a results based business we’re all in, and too often people forget what you did last year. They forget what you did five years ago. These kids nowadays, I don’t think they really worry about what somebody did in the past.”
What that leaves then is two solid football programs set to put on a show for area fans. Both coaches were impressed with the opposing team's weapons.
Hicks singled out the steady play of Crestview quarterback Rod Bouchard who completes almost 60 percent of his passes, the Bulldogs’ mammoth offensive line, featuring four players standing 6-foot-3 or higher in Weston Tew, Luther Fagalima, Bryson Norris and Cade Kootsouradis, and the Crestview defense.
“I’m just really impressed. They got good skilled people,” Hicks said. “Defensively of course, they’ve score about as many points on defense as a lot of offenses have, so they’re obviously very good over there also. It’ll be quite a challenge. “
He made no mention of running back Jay Stanton, who averages 7.8 yards per carry nor the three Voisin brothers, Devin, Keon and Jaden, who have combined for 59 catches, 1,041 yards and 12 touchdowns as Bouchard’s dynamic receiving corps, though they, too, are surely part of the Eagle’s defensive gameplan.
Hatten was quick to recognize the play of Niceville corner and wide receiver Juanyeh Thomas and linebacker Eli West. West leads the team with 51 tackles and four forced fumbles. Thomas has an interception, three pass deflections and is second on the team with 733 all-purpose yards. Both have blocked a field goal.
Thomas trails only Jack White in all-purpose yards. White, who has 755 all-purpose yards, has emerged this season as the Eagles’ top gadget player.
“We feel like we’ve got good receivers everywhere, but Jack kinda gives you a little bit more speed and explosiveness than some of the others,” Hicks said.
White has 26 carries, 24 receptions and he has thrown 31 passes in a relief roll behind starting quarterback Will Koch. He leads the team with 10 touchdowns.
“They’ve got good players like we’ve got good players,” Hatten said. “Too many to name.
“It’ll be a fun game. Both of us will be highly competitive. We’re 15 miles down the road from each other, so it’ll be fun. It’s always fun.”