NICEVILLE — The day before Niceville met Mitchell for its Final Four matchup — its fourth in program history — coach Wes Nelson pulled his whole team aside at practice to offer some perspective.
In his 19 years leading the Eagles soccer team, Nelson had reached the state semifinals only twice before. Both games were losses, and the most recent happened 11 years ago.
“I told the guys, ‘You never know when you’re gonna get this chance to play in a game to go to the state final,’” Nelson said. “‘You guys, who knows if you underclassmen ever get to go again, and you seniors, this is your only shot.’”
The Eagles didn’t throw it away.
When double whistle finally blew Saturday night, Niceville’s players sprinted from their bench across the Twin Oaks Soccer Complex’s frigid pitch to meet their friends and family at midfield, hooping and hollering with a joy never before heard in Niceville.
They had won 3-0. It was their 14th clean sheet of the year. They were going to the state championship game. Finally.
Niceville socccer is state championship bound!
The Eagles beat Mitchell 3-0 and will play either George Jenkins or South Broward for the 6A title at 4 p.m. Saturday at Spec Martin Stadium in DeLand. pic.twitter.com/BD653PttKK
“To be able to do this in front of our home fans is special,” Nelson said. “It’s something special for them, for me, for the program. It’s exciting to win this game to get to the final game and be able to do it at home. It’s a great feeling.”
And to do it such impressive fashion? Even better.
Right out of the gate, Niceville (24-0-2) was aggressive. Ranked No. 1 overall in the state and No. 2 in the country by MaxPreps, the Eagles took two shots and forced a corner kick in the first three minutes of action.
They lived in the attacking third and had their first goal in just the 14th minute.
The penalty kicks needed to win Wednesday’s Region 1-6A championship against Leon and the region semifinal matchup with Fletcher four days prior had no place in Saturday’s contest.
Lined up on the far side of the field, junior Austin Paugh heaved a mighty throw into the middle of the box. Junior Logan Harrelson rose up to meet it and sent it sailing toward sophomore Michael O'Leary’s head with his own.
In just his first full season on the varsity team, O’Leary let the ball come to him and simply tapped it in through the outstretched arms of Mitchell’s keeper for a 1-0 lead.
He couldn’t believe it.
Michael O’Leary with the go-ahead goal. Eagles lead Mitchell 1-0 with 25:03 left in the first half. pic.twitter.com/8I9zLwJJgr— Sam Grubenhoff (@SamGrubenhoff) February 23, 2020
“It was crazy,” O’Leary said. “I didn’t even know what to think when I scored. I said to myself, ‘I can’t believe that just happened.’
“I always try to score goals, but it’s really nice to do for your team in a big game like this.”
No one wearing Niceville’s signature maroon and gold would disagree, including Nelson.
“That’s always big to put in that early goal,” he said. “We worked hard for it and got it on a set piece. Especially being at home, we wanted to get the momentum going, so that we could finish it in the second half.”
And finish it the Eagles did, scoring on both a breakaway and a penalty kick, their versatility, their prowess on full display.
Senior Liam Etan, the reigning Daily News Player of the Year, had a clean look in 46th minute that Mitchell’s keeper barely got a piece of. Trailing close behind, senior Ryan Freeman didn’t miss the putback, burying the ball in the back of the net for the 2-0 lead.
And Harrelson, who notched the game-winner in Niceville’s region quarterfinal victory against Buchholz, put the state semifinal on ice in the 57th minute with a brilliant penalty kick that glided low and left off the Mitchell keeper’s hand.
“It was just a little bit of icing,” he said. “I was thinking I really need to make it. A 2-1 game is way different than a 3-1 if they scored.”
Logan Harrelson makes it 3-0 Niceville with 22:09 left pic.twitter.com/8G2OroFYwj— Sam Grubenhoff (@SamGrubenhoff) February 23, 2020
The Mustangs (19-6-4) didn’t. Ranked 17th in the state and 40th in the country, they had outscored their opponents 65-18 entering the game, but they couldn’t crack keeper Jacob Dunne and the Eagle defense.
Mitchell took just four shots all night, and only two had a chance.
“The defense has been doing really good lately, and you have to against good teams,” Harrelson said. “They press hard.”
And now Niceville presses on.
The Eagles will next play South Broward (18-4-2) at 4 p.m. Saturday at Spec Martin Stadium in DeLand for the Class 6A championship after the Bulldogs topped George Jenkins 2-1 on the other side of the bracket.
The District 15-6A champs, South Broward hails from Hollywood and has outscored its opponents 56-20 this year. Ranked 23rd in the state, Bulldogs beat Doral Academy, the state’s second-ranked team, 4-1 in the Region 4-6A championship game this past Wednesday.
But that’s a problem for Sunday morning. Saturday night, Nelson said, is all about soaking in the moment.
After all, you never know when that moment might come around again.
“I think I’ll let it sink in tonight and enjoy it and hopefully the boys do, too,” Nelson said. “I haven’t been too worried about who we play; I just want to get there so we’re playing in the game.
.@CaptWesNelson to his Eagles after becoming the first team in program history to reach the state title game: “We’re not done yet.” pic.twitter.com/eNfRWlpZJO— Sam Grubenhoff (@SamGrubenhoff) February 23, 2020