NICEVILLE — Tim Albert was calm. Steady.
The Twin Oaks soccer complex, fans adorned in Niceville’s signature maroon and gold packed around its boundary, quieted almost to a whisper. Lined up for a penalty kick with the Region 1-6A championship deadlocked at 1-1 against rival Leon, Albert looked to his left. The clock read “1:40.”
“It was make it or break it at that point, and I was just trying to find the sweet spot,” said Albert, a senior. “Everybody’s got their sweet spot.”
When the whistle came, he took a deep breath, four steps and struck the ball with his left foot, sending it skittering across the slick grass. Xander Balog, the Lion’s keeper, dove to his right but too little, too late. By the time Balog hit the ground, the ball was tucked neatly into the back netting and Albert was sprinting toward the student section, mobbed by his teammates amid thunderous applause.
Niceville soccer is headed to the Final Four after knocking off Leon 3-1.
Tim Albert delivered the go-ahead goal in the final two minutes on this penalty kick pic.twitter.com/Lhv4cJ9oZP
On the Niceville sideline, there was never a doubt.
“He was gonna make it,” Niceville coach Wes Nelson said. “I’m 100% confident that one: he’s wanted to take it, and two: I just knew that he’d put it in the back of the net.”
With some five minutes of action left Wednesday night, the game was over. Everyone at the park with an Eagles logo on their shirt or hat knew it.
Senior keeper Jacob Dunne deflected one last shot on goal with no time left on the clock and Albert delivered a second penalty kick moments later to give Niceville a 3-1 victory and spot in the Final Four against Mitchell, the Mustangs set to play Niceville at 6 p.m. Saturday at Twin Oaks.
“I really am just happy for the kids,” Nelson said. “We got here in dramatic fashion. We played good teams in tight games, overtimes and winning close to the end of games. I’m just happy for them. It means a lot to us, the program and the school.”
And it might mean even more, considering Leon (18-5-3) has been a thorn in Niceville’s side for years.
The Lions, ranked third overall in Class 6A, knocked the Eagles from the playoffs in 2017 and 2019, the latter result particularly heartbreaking. The game had been scoreless thorough its first 75 minutes, and star forward Liam Etan had clanged the go-ahead goal of the crossbar with 10 minutes left. Then Sy Fontenot, Leon’s senior striker, banked in the game’s only goal off the post with just five minutes left for a 1-0 victory.
Wednesday, the Eagles swore, would be different.
“They’d knocked us out two out of my three years already, and I wasn’t gonna get knocked out a third time,” Albert said. “I’ve been knocked out by Fletcher and Leon in my three years, and I’m not about to lose to them again.”
After topping Fletcher 5-5 in penalty kicks this past Saturday, Niceville’s revenge tour continued early against the Lions. Etan fed junior Logan Harrelson from the top of the box for the game’s first goal early in the opening half, the Eagles (23-0-2) looking every bit the part of a team ranked fourth in the country with three shots on goal in the first 20 minutes.
The Lions didn’t get on the board until the 48th minute. Niceville defender Austin Paugh was flagged for a penalty inside the box, which sent Leon’s Nick Ramsden in for the penalty kick. He fired down the middle, and Dunne dove left, tying the game 1-1. It was the only kick Dunne didn’t get to Wednesday, recording five saves.
“We have a flair for the dramatic,” Nelson said. “I would rather that not happen, but we’re winning, so I just want to keep that going.”
Doing so will, of course, be difficult. Mitchell is 19-5-4 on the year with 65 goals scored, 18 goals against and 14 clean sheets. Three of those clean sheets have come during its postseason run, the Mustangs outscoring foes 13-3 since their district tournament began.
Still, Albert said the Eagles feel ready.
“I feel like we got it,” he said. “We’re looking at it. We got it. We’re comfortable.
“We’re confident we got it.”