NICEVILLE — In his 12 years at Niceville, head coach Wes Nelson contends that he has never seen this measure of parity in district play.
Enough, however, to knock Niceville from its district championship mantle, which the Eagles have assumed for eight straight years? That remains to be seen.
Adding credence to the parity argument is head-to-head play. While Niceville did finish the District 1-4A slate undefeated, second-seeded Navarre and third-seeded Fort Walton Beach each defeated the Eagles 1-0 in non-district tilts.
And fourth-seeded Crestview, which will play fifth-seeded Tate tonight at 5:30 on field 4 at the Navarre Soccer Complex for a chance to face Niceville in the semifinals, recently played the Eagles down to the wire in a 1-0 loss.
“I think this year is one of closest districts I’ve been a part of,” Nelson said.
Looking for their ninth straight postseason trip, the Eagles’ road to the playoffs is shorter than the rest of the district field. Rewarded for their undefeated record in the eight-team league, the Eagles were shoo-ins for the top seed and the bye that comes with it.
“That was No. 1 seed is big because everyone has to play one game before us,” said Nelson, who noted his team will take advantage of the rest.
As for continuing the district win streak, Niceville isn’t concerned with past accolades.
“We haven’t even talked about the district final or winning that,” Nelson said. “We try not to focus on the previous year because this is a completely different team and we only brought back four returning starters.”
So what’s been the key to the Eagles’ success?
“It’s always been our ability to play as a team first,” Nelson said. “The only way to keep the playoff streak alive is to play as a team.”
As for whom the Eagles will face in the semis, it is up in the air considering Crestview and Tate tied 1-1 on Dec. 13.
“Who’s to say who’ll say win? It should be a good match,” Nelson said.
As for the top of the bracket, it looks like second-seeded Navarre and third-seeded Fort Walton Beach are on a collision course for the semifinals.
Navarre pulled out regular-season wins over seventh-seeded Pine Forest and eighth-seeded Escambia, which played for the right to match up with the Raiders tonight at 7:30 on field 4 at the Navarre Soccer Complex. Meanwhile, Fort Walton Beach beat its first-round opponent, Pace, 2-1 on Dec. 19.
The Vikings, who face the Patriots at 7:30 tonight on field 5 at the Navarre Soccer Complex, haven’t won a district title in more than a decade and last made the playoffs in 2011, where they advanced to the region semifinals.
Navarre, meanwhile, hasn’t won a district championship since 2004 and last made the playoffs in 2010.
Choctaw looks to defend District 2-3A title
Including back-to-back final-four appearances, Choctaw has made the playoffs four straight years.
Armed with a District 2-3A first-round opponent in fourth-seeded Milton tonight at 7 at Joe Etheredge Stadium, that postseason streak appears to be safe.
The top-seeded Indians defeated the Panthers by a combined 15-0 score – 8-0 and 7-0 – during the regular season. But those scores mean little to Choctaw coach Chris McDaniel, who said the one-and-done type atmosphere presents a whole new ballgame.
“The past means nothing,” McDaniel said. “With this, the first game, it’s lose and you’re done.”
After a 17-2-2 campaign and armed with home-field advantage, Choctaw is the clear favorite to make it three straight district championships. But that moniker seemed like a stretch before the season’s start with the Indians returning only four seniors and losing six starters.
“We’re really young all around,” McDaniel said.
So what’s offset the youth?
With Trapper Chechak providing the senior leadership, consistency and hard work have paved the way.
“With these guys, there is no one real superstar,” McDaniel said. “They’re all superstars, they all work hard and they’re all blue collar guys who find a way to get it done.”
On the other side of the bracket are Rutherford and Arnold, which will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday outside of Fort Walton Beach.