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.
“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.
“Now we’ve been rewarded with this fun run to the state finals.”
That includes road trip after road trip. Total time on the bus? Try more than 40 hours.
Being overlooked. Being underdogs. Being on the road … that has a way of bringing everyone together.
“I think this team might not have the same skills as last year, like the same support in the beginning from everybody, but I think we want it a little bit more,” said Carsen Krider, a junior who has three goals in the four playoff wins. “I think we’re a little bit hungrier because people doubted us in the beginning.”
Added Harrelson, the proud senior owner of five goals and an assist in the playoffs: “We had a losing record, and we didn’t have that last year. We lost our first game and everyone was hanging their heads, but we’ve made some changes, worked hard and now we’re headed to the state finals.
“The team’s got a lot more fight, and we just really want it.”
“This team is a bunch of new guys, so we’ve had to come together and get to know one another a bit more,” said Michael O’Leary, a junior who has three assists and a goal this postseason while also converting his lone penalty kick. “Now we’re just one family.”
A family that possesses the ball well, relies on team defense and cutting off lanes, leans on finesse more than physicality and knows how to close out games — including overtime and penalty kicks.
“This team really has energy,” Krider said. “You can look at us after playing two halves and overtime and you wouldn’t know we’ve played a game yet because this team is always hungry and winning 50-50 balls. We just always have that energy and trust in each other to win the game.”
“We just believe in each other,” echoed O’Leary. “Even when we’re down a goal against Fletcher in the region final, we didn’t panic. We just picked our head up and kept pushing.”
Added Harrelson: “We’re real tight and we know how one another plays. I think it comes down to trust and we fight hard. Playoffs, overtime and PKs … we really flip a switch and don’t give up.”
It may be an inexperienced squad compared to last year, but it’s also laden with upperclassmen — seniors Aiden Elsinghorst, Jaden Griggs, Michael Frey joining O’Leary and Harrelson at midfield, Tyler Powell joining Krider up top, and a back line of senior Carson Hickok and junior Gavin Phillips paired with sophomore Ayden Morales in front of junior goalkeeper Garrett McClay.
“It’s been a process to to get here, and it’s taken all of us,” Nelson said. “I’m lucky to have a goalkeeping coach and two assistants who coach JV as well. It’s a lot of trial and error, but I think we found a winning formula.”
That winning formula will be tested against top-ranked crew Doral Academy.
“They’re very technical,” Nelson said. “They’re good on the ball and they can trap and pass. They’re pretty physical and a high-pressure defense. So it’s things I would expect from a team in the finals. They don’t have one superstar. They’re just a real solid team.”
Harrelson, who now has 14 goals and five assists in the program’s nine-game win streak in the state series, said more than game planning for the Firebirds, it’s about controlling what the Eagles can control.
“We’re just going to keep playing as we have all playoffs. It’s been working,” he said. “We know some of their weaknesses and we’re going to try to exploit that.”
Echoed Krider: “We just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing and stay locked in and focused. I think if our defense keeps guarding against their counter-attacks and our offense keeps scoring, I don’t think it should be a hard win for us.”
O’Leary agrees, even though he knows this will be Niceville’s toughest test yet.
“They’re definitely physical and know what they’re doing, but we’ve looked at film and watched and studied them,” he said. “We know what to do, we know what to expect.
“We just gotta bring our A-game. When we play our best, no one can beat us.”
6A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
Who: No. 3 Niceville (13-6-1) vs. No. 1 Doral Academy (10-1-3)
Where: Spec Martin Stadium in DeLand, Florida
When: 7 p.m. EST
How to watch: https://fhsaa.boxcast.com/