The 2012 high school football season ended in Northwest Florida in the same place it began.
Four months ago, the Navarre Raiders played the first preseason classic game of the year, hosting Milton on a Thursday night. Two days ago, the Raiders ended the season in a Class 6A semifinal loss to Gainesville.
In between, the Raiders and the other teams in the area covered by the Daily News gave us a season filled with drama, intrigue and great football. Now, with the season behind us, sports editor Brandon Walker and sportswriter Seth Stringer reflect on their first season of football in Northwest Florida with a “best-of” list.
Walker: I saw several games go down to the wire this season, but no game offered consistent drama from beginning to end – not to mention a great finish – like my first experience in the Choctaw-Fort Walton Beach rivalry. FWB quarterback Blake James threw for nearly 400 yards and five touchdowns, and Choctaw came from 14 points down midway through the fourth quarter as the two rivals battled to a stand-still at Steve Riggs Stadium. When James connected with Marquese Davenport for the game-winner with 23 seconds left, the capacity crowd – and this sports editor – finally had a chance to catch its breath.
Honorable Mention: Freeport 41, Baker 34; Milton 38, Niceville 31 (OT)
Stringer: The parity-driven District 2-6A no doubt delivered a handful of down-to-the-wire games, and I don’t blame Brandon for tabbing the Choctaw/FWB game as the best of the best. But in my opinion, none of those tilts compared to the 6A region championship matchup between Navarre and Columbia.
From the atmosphere of a charged crowd tied to the hopes of witnessing history to the implications of a trip to the final four, the matchup delivered from start to finish. It started with Nick Benton taking the opening kickoff 86 yards to the house, which set the tone for a 21-0 Raiders lead. But Columbia would storm back to knot things at 21-all in the fourth, only to watch Jay Warren score from 6 yards out in the waning minutes. Moments later, Navarre delivered the goal-line stand to lift the Raiders to the program’s first region title. Pandemonium ensued. Players, fans and students met on the field to rejoice. It was a game Navarre – and this sportswriter – will remember forever.
Honorable Mention: Niceville 17, Pine Forest 14; Choctaw 31, Niceville 28.
BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE
Walker: I had heard about University of Central Florida commitment Micah Reed and his bruising running style, but I didn’t get the chance to see him play until Oct. 12 against Choctaw. He did not disappoint. In a crucial 28-24 win for Crestview, Reed had three touchdown runs of 70 yards or more, and he had a fourth called back due to a penalty. Reed finished the night with 262 total yards, and it felt like 500.
Honorable mention: Gabe Moore, Freeport – 5 TDs in win at Baker; FWB’s James with five touchdown passes, twice.
Stringer: From his 6-foot-6 frame to his sure hands, there’s no questioning why Jordan Leggett is regarded as the top receiver in the area. And the Clemson University commitment reaffirmed the hype in Navarre’s 21-17 homecoming win over Choctaw. The senior pulled down 207 yards and three scores, the final of which proved to be the game-winner. Down 17-14 with under 2 minutes to play in the game, Leggett – who caught touchdown passes of 13 and 69 yards earlier in the game – hauled in the Andrew Rieves pass around the Indians’ 25 yard line, sidestepped three tackles and was gone.
Honorable mention: Micah Reed, see above; Jay Warren, Navarre – 248 yards rushing and three TDs in win over Milton.
Walker: While this topic refers to a comeback within the context of a game, I’m giving my recognition to Niceville’s climb back from a disappointing start to the brink of the second round of the 6A playoffs. On Sept. 28, Niceville lost to Choctaw to fall to 0-2 in District 2-6A play and the Eagles were 2-3 overall. All they did after that was win their last four games, all by three touchdowns or more. The Eagles rallied from the district cellar and on the final night of the 2-6A schedule, they earned a playoff spot with a 42-7 win at Crestview.
Stringer: I agree with Brandon here, but to shine the spotlight on one game I’ll turn to the only true comeback I covered all year. As much as I hate to sound like a broken record, it’s Navarre I’ll focus on. On Homecoming night against Choctaw, the Raiders trailed 10-0 at halftime and 17-6 with less than 6 minutes to play. But Jordan Leggett hauled in a 69-yard pass to cut the deficit to 3 midway through the fourth, and later he broke three tackles en route to a 36-yard score with 1:41 left in the game to lift the Raiders to a 21-17 win. The highlight reel catch would lead the Raiders to a 5-0 mark in district play, giving Navarre just its second district title ever.
BEST UNDER-THE-RADAR PLAYER
Walker: Brandon Whalen, South Walton: The Seahawks won just one game this season, but Whalen was everywhere. An all-area caliber performer on both sides of the ball, Whalen led SW in rushing yards and in tackles, racking up nearly 800 yards as a running back and collecting a team-leading 117 tackles from his middle linebacker spot.
Honorable mention: Levi Derry, Rocky Bayou; Adam Crowson, Baker; Ellis Warren, FWB.
Stringer:Thomas Forte, Choctaw: Stature-wise, the 5-foot-5, 155-pound linebacker isn’t imposing. And lining up against lineman measuring nearly a foot taller and twice his weight, Forte used that to his advantage. Racking up double-digit tackles weekly and making a living on putting defensive linemen on their backs, the junior earned defensive player of the week for the Indians in three of the first four games.
Honorable mention: Amos Williams, Walton; Josh Preston, Rocky Bayou; Andrew Rieves, Navarre.
Walker: This was an easy choice. Down eight points in the final minute to Milton in the first round of the 6A playoffs, Niceville looked dead in the water. After forcing Milton to punt from midfield, the only chance the Eagles had was to block the punt and hopefully score quickly. They did just that. Brandon Kuchera blocked it, and Demetrius Davis picked it up and sprinted 50 yards to complete Niceville’s 16-point comeback in the final two minutes of the game.
Stringer: Like Brandon, I didn’t have to think hard on this one. Watching the most renowned professional and collegiate kickers routinely miss chip-shot field goals on Saturdays and Sundays really makes what Andrew Mitchell accomplished against Pine Forest special. With 6 seconds left in the game and Niceville deadlocked with Pine Forest at 14, Mitchell summoned his inner Adam Vinatieri as the Eagles marched to the visitors’ 33 yard line. With ice in his veins, Mitchell withstood two timeouts and booted a 50-yarder as time expired to lift the Eagles to the win. To put that distance into context, most college coaches opt to punt outside the 30-yard line. Making the feat even more impressive was that the kick likely would have been good from 60 yards out.
Walker: I hate to pick the same game twice, but I’d be lying if I wrote about anything in this space other than the FWB-Choctaw game at Steve Riggs Stadium. When I got to the stadium two hours early and noticed that Choctaw’s student section had already been full for an hour, I knew I was in for a special night.
Stringer: There’s something to be said about a postseason environment, which just can’t be replicated during the regular season. And that was most true in Navarre’s 62-26 loss at home to Gainesville in the 6A state semifinal. From the bass reverberating around Bennett C. RussellStadium in the pregame warmups to the student-section loud chants and pregame trash talk taking place at midfield, the atmosphere was electric.
Walker: To me, this goes to a coach who has a history in the area. Just over 20 years ago, Jimmy Ray Stevens captured a state championship at Fort Walton Beach. This season, his first in Walton, Stevens led the Braves to a 4-6 record just one year after Walton failed to win a game. Though 4-6 isn’t perfect, it’s a big improvement for the Braves and could be an indication of big things to come for Walton.
Stringer: Sticking with Brandon’s theme of highlighting a first-year coach making an immediate impact, Navarre’s Jay Walls gets my nod. Already proving himself a winner in his two head coaching stops at Tift County (Ga.) and Suwannee, Walls led the Raiders to uncharted heights this season. The firsts for the program included 12 overall wins, seven victories at home, an 11-game win streak and a region championship. Throw in just the program’s second district title, and Walls’ impact can’t be underscored.
Walker: There was a moment that took place approximately 30 minutes prior to kickoff of Choctaw's Week 4 game against Tishomingo County (Miss.). I'm originally from that state and I was on the TC sideline visiting an old coaching friend when we both looked across the way at the home stands at Joe Etheridge Stadium, which were already filled to the brim a half-hour before the game started. Choctaw was celebrating its 60th anniversary that night, and the entire fanbase seemingly turned out. With Choctaw's incredible band finishing its pregame set and the sun setting behind the massive crowd, it painted a perfect picture of what high school football can be. My coaching friend turned to me in the middle of the spectacle and said "Wow, they take football really seriously down here."
I just smiled and said simply, "Yes, they do."
Stringer: Facing a tight deadline after conducting my postgame interviews in Niceville’s 42-7 win at Crestview, I walked back to my car to start writing a recap that strangely hinged on the result of another game: Choctaw at Fort Walton Beach. With a Fort Walton Beach win, Niceville would wrap up the second District 2-6A playoff spot behind Navarre. If Choctaw won, the Indians were in.
Following the minute-by-minute tweets of my sports editor, who was covering the game, as I walked out of the stadium, I saw Niceville’s Andrew Mitchell and a crowd standing around a Sheriff’s truck right beside the team bus that was parked outside the Eagles’ locker room. They were tuned into the radio play-by-play of the game, celebrating every Blake James’ completed pass of a potentially game-winning drive. Then across the airwaves came the news of James’ fifth and game-winning touchdown pass, and a loud “Touchdown” cry permeated the elated crowd. The off-the-field moment captured the joy of a team that had rebounded from an 0-2 district start to earn a postseason berth. And it gave me a smile – along with a pretty solid lede.