GAME OF INCHES: Niceville loses heartbreaker in Final Four
NICEVILLE — Grant Thompson, standing in the foreground of a scoreboard that read Eagles 28, Guest 30, was speechless.
Speechless that a state championship trip to Doak Campbell Stadium was denied on, of all things, an Edgewater 40-yard field goal that bounced off the crossbar and through the uprights with 2 seconds left.
Speechless that he ― along with the staff he carefully crafted when he assumed the helm two years ago ― couldn’t coach these seniors for one more week.
Speechless that his “ride-or-die” crew ― who’d navigated the uncertainty of a COVID-19-stricken season to the tune of 10 running clocks and an 11-1 Final Four campaign ― didn’t bring home the program’s first state title since 1988 and the area’s first state crown since Fort Walton Beach’s triumph in 1995.
Speechless that they lost at Eagle Stadium for the first time since 2018 despite outscoring Edgewater 21-9 in the fourth quarter.
Speechless that his only two losses at the Niceville helm have come to Edgewater, which last year ended the Eagles’ season in the region finals with a 28-20 win in Orlando.
Speechless. Drained. Heartbroken.
“You see me standing here. I don’t have any words,” said the man who bleeds maroon, and will continue to bleed maroon in the morning and every day for the rest of his life.
“I have emotions that I can’t explain to you. There’s no reflecting right now.”
But, after collecting himself, he was able to reflect on a comeback that started with Niceville (11-1) down 21-7 with fewer than 9 minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
Up until this point, the hometown Eagles had just 132 yards of offense and solely a 27-yard touchdown between Trey Wainwright and Roland Clay, their 12th end zone connection of the season.
The run game was fortunate to get 3 yards. Azareyeh Thomas, leading the team with 14 touchdowns, was blanketed. Costly flags were forcing third-and-longs and a Dom Annichiarico fumble proved costly as it set up an easy Mobley touchdown.
But Dramarian “Juice” McNulty drew a pair of pass interference flags to give the offense life and its first red zone trip. With Micah Turner out of the wildcat, Juice found room up the left side, hauled in the pass, beat his man on the edge and dove toward the pylon for the score.
Suddenly Niceville had life down 21-13 with 7:59 to play.
After forcing a fourth-and-26 and an Edgewater punt inside their own end zone, Niceville got the ball at the visitors’ 48-yard line and Wainwright connected with Juice for a 38-yard diving catch. A play later, Shawn Parker scored on a 10-yard run and Turner’s jump pass to Khalil Jacobs provided the equalizing two-point conversion for a 21-all contest.
“The chips are down. We’re down 14, they have the ball and we’re not driving it," Thompson said. "But we find a way to come back. That’s Niceville. That’s the Flyin’ N. That’s what we do.”
But Edgewater (8-2), as it would prove all night, had an answer.
Canaan Mobley, who ended the night with four touchdowns and 193 passing yards and 82 rushing yards, busted through the middle for a 36-yard score. The point after, though, was blocked.
Thompson’s crew marched 66 yards in five plays, capped by a 41-yard run up the right side by Parker. An extra point from Charles Labee, the hero in the 38-35 overtime win at Buchholz in the region semis, put the Eagles up 28-27.
“Shawn’s a warrior. He’s a senior,” Thompson said. “He’s been doing it all year. We ran our best play that we’ve run all year right there to win the ballgame. We had a chance to win the ballgame. It was a no-brainer. It’s easy to call plays with these guys.”
But there was too much time on the clock, which read 2:15, as Edgewater got the ball back at its own 34.
On fourth-and-11 at Niceville’s 37-yard line with 57 seconds remaining, Mobley rolled to his right, saw Jeremiah Connelly peeling toward the right sideline and threw a perfect pass to Connelly’s right shoulder for a 15-yard gain and first down at Niceville’s 22.
That was enough for Howes, who said he hits 40-yarders “every day in practice.”
“I knew I had to make it,” Howes said. “I knew it was going to come down to me. I had to trust everything in front of me and it worked out perfectly.”
Perfectly is a stretch. The kick had the right line, but from 41 yards it was no doubt short. Fortunately all he needed was 40, the ball hitting off the top off the crossbar and bouncing through the uprights. Howes didn’t see the ending, the senior on his back after a roughing the kicker.
"I saw it for a little bit and I saw it was headed in the right direction, so even though I didn't see it go through I felt good about it," Howes said.
With 2 seconds left on the clock, Niceville’s final pass fell short for an anticlimactic finish.
As Edgewater celebrated, the hometown Eagles ― like their coach ― were speechless.
STAT OF THE NIGHT: 10
That’s the number of Mobley, who racked up 285 yards of offense and found the end zone for all four of Edgewater’s scores.
His best throw of the night came on the fourth-and-11, season-saving completion to Connelly in the final minute after rolling to his right.
Eagle Stadium, tasting victory and deafening with its cheers, went silent.
OFFENSIVE MVP: Juice McNulty and Shawn Parker, Niceville seniors
Two seniors. Two game-changing performances.
Without Juice drawing the pair of pass interference flags, making a guy miss on that diving touchdown ― his sixth of the season ― and hauling in the Superman 38-yard catch, Niceville doesn’t get its offense going.
Meanwhile Parker, who led Niceville in 2020 with 825 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, caught fire late and delivered what everyone thought to be ― before Howes’ kick ― the Play of the Game on the 41-yard score.
DEFENSIVE MVP: Dom Annichiarico, Niceville senior
The guy was everywhere ― making tackles in the secondary and in the backfield.
His tackle for a loss on Mobley forced third-and-20 for Edgewater on the eventual game-winning drive and he ended the night with a team-high six solo tackles.
Thompson on his crew, which entered the week ranked 77th in the country just behind 70th-ranked Edgewater:
“It’s a heckuva team, a helluva team and I’ve never been a part of anything like it. We have great players with huge hearts and great families and a great community that doesn’t know how to quit.”
Waiting for Edgewater at Florida State University’s Doak Campbell Stadium next Saturday is a familiar foe: St. Thomas Aquinas (7-1), which beat Edgewater 28-23 in last year’s state title game.
“It’s huge,” Howes said of the rematch. We’re ready.”