NICEVILLE — Wes Nelson laughed at the comparison, Niceville’s coach unsure of how to navigate such a loaded question.

How do you compare this year’s crew who returned only three starters, started 3-4-1 and was written off by everyone against a 25-0-2 state champion squad that finished 2020 No. 1 in Florida and No. 2 nationally?

“It’s impossible to compare,” said Nelson, whose third-ranked Eagles (13-6-1) return to Spec Martin Stadium on Saturday for a 7 p.m. (EST) showdown against top-ranked Doral Academy (10-1-3) in the 6A State championship. “It’s just a whole different experience. I felt like last year nothing was easy, but we played at home, we didn’t have to travel and we were undefeated.

“This year, we started off and it was like uh oh, how are we going to fix this? So it’s been more of a process of changing people, formations, all these things where last year was set and I knew my team.”

Yet, as Nelson points out, adversity is a good litmus test.

From the ashes of 3-4-1, the Eagles responded with a 10-2 mark ever since, including a 6-3 region quarterfinal win at District 2 champ Lincoln, a 3-0 victory at District 1 champ Tate, a penalty kicks win at District 3 champ Fletcher, and a 3-2 triumph at Mitchell.

Carson Hickok, far right, has some fun with his fellow Niceville players as they clown around during a break in their practice at the Twin Oaks soccer fields.

“Adversity sometimes, it can either tear you apart or bring you closer, and it brought us closer. I think we’re even closer than last year’s team.” Nelson said. “That’s what I’ve been most proud of this team — they never quit and we’ve been fighting and never lost hope or focus. We never fought when we were going through those tough times and just trusted we’d find a way to get out of this.