FORT WALTON BEACH – Mike Owens knows it sounds cliché, but he believes it to be true.
When asked of Friday night’s rivalry clash with Choctaw, the Fort Walton Beach head coach simply said “I know it sounds like coach-speak, but this really is a case where you can throw the records out the window. They don’t really matter when these two teams play.”
But this time around, the records definitely matter.
The two teams will enter this week’s showdown with identical 2-2 records in District 2-6A, and a season’s worth of twists and turns will come to a head when the Vikings and Indians kick off at Steve Riggs Stadium at 7 p.m.
A Choctaw win, coupled with a Crestview loss against Niceville will send the Indians to the playoffs. Conversely, a Vikings win and a Nice-ville loss at Crestview will mean the Vikings are postseason bound, adding a layer of intrigue to the annual showdown.
As if this rivalry needed it.
“This game is always a huge event,” said Owens. “This is definitely a unique situation though. We’ve been in scenarios before where we’ve had teams tied at the end of the district schedule, but I can’t remember a night where two games would decide the final spot like this.”
Owens would know, as he’s entering his 13th Choctaw-FWB game. Choctaw head coach Greg Thomas, preparing for his fifth, echoed the sentiments of his counterpart.
“Everybody’s goal is to make the playoffs, and it is certainly unique to have all four county teams still in the hunt on the last night. But like I’m sure coach Owens has told his team, we told our kids that we can only control what happens in our game. We can’t worry about what Crestview and Niceville are doing.”
While Choctaw needs a Niceville win and FWB needs a Crestview victory, the two teams that will clash in Crestview face the same sce-nario. A Crestview win teamed with a Choctaw triumph sends the Bulldogs to the playoffs, while the Eagles need to win and hope that the Vikings do the same.
All in all, the ingredients are in place for an unforgettable final night of District 2-6A football.
For Owens, the challenge will be to get his team to return to the form it showed in opening at 2-0 in district play.
The Vikings won five of their first six this season, including district wins over Mosley and Crestview before dropping the last two to Niceville and Navarre. Now at 5-3 and 2-2, Owens’ group no longer controls its own destiny, though the Vikings’ playoff chances are just as strong as any of the other three.
“The last two weeks have been tough on us, both physically and emotionally,” said Owens. “The good thing is that no matter what has happened to this point, it’s not that difficult to get excited about playing Choctaw. The community will be up for it, the kids will be up for it. This is a game that our players always get excited about.”
It’s also a game that has been as even as any in the state. When Choctaw earned a come-from-behind win at home last season, the Indi-ans edged ahead in the series, taking a 21-20 advantage. With a win this week, the Vikings would knot the series score at 21 apiece.
While Owens and his staff are dealing with back-to-back losses, Thomas and his Indians have dealt with their own adversity. A rash of injuries has slowed the Indians this season, culminating in last week’s 35-12 loss to Gulf Breeze. Choctaw’s leading rusher, sophomore John Hicks, did not play in that game, and several key Indians have missed time this season.
“I’ve never seen a season where the injury bug hits this hard,” said Thomas. “It’s something you can’t plan for, but I’m proud of how we’ve fought through it. Like I told our team, after everything that’s happened this season, our goals are all still there. We’re 48 minutes from possibly going to the playoffs, we just have to go get it.”
To do that, the Indians will have to slow FWB’s high-scoring offense, which averages 29 points per game behind senior QB Blake James. James has thrown for 19 TDs this season.
“They’ve got a great quarterback and their offensive scheme is solid,” said Thomas. “They can spread you out, and we’ve really got to be on our game because that type of offense has given us trouble in the past.”
To Owens, the Indians’ toughness and ability to fight through adversity stands out..
“I’m very impressed with the coaching job they’ve done over there this year,” said Owens. “They’ve had so many injuries, and like us they are under-sized a bit…But that coaching staff gets everything out of their players. I really admire what they’ve done.”
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Brandon Walker at 850-315-4476 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonWnwfdn.