NICEVILLE – The game and its setting inside this stadium evolved as good as anticipated.
When it mattered the most, so did the Niceville Eagles’ defense.
With so much natural focus on these teams’ proficient offenses, it was Niceville’s swarming defense that forced a turnover and game-changing fumble return for a score, then sealed with another recovery in the Eagles 35-21 victory Friday night against the Navarre Raiders.
“They are a really close-knit unit and they love playing with each other and you can see it when they get on the field,” Niceville coach John Hicks said. “They were great (Friday).”
So was every other aspect of this game.
Niceville’s Eagle Stadium was bursting with an overflow crowd on homecoming night — far beyond its 7,000 seat capacity. People were lined two or three deep, standing around the concrete sidewalk that encircles the stadium behind the top row of stands.
“It was electric. If every Friday night were like this, it would be awesome,” Navarre coach Jay Walls said.
Hicks said, “When we came out before kickoff … I have played a lot of playoff games here … and it was just like that.”
The game paired two of the state’s top teams in respective classifications.
Niceville (6-1), ranked No. 3 in the Class 7A poll, had rolled in its previous wins much like Navarre (6-1), ranked No. 10 in the Class 6A poll.
The game began much like last year’s 35-7 Niceville win. The Eagles jumped to a 14-0 lead with 3:49 left in the first half.
Then, Navarre turned terrific. The Raiders got a pair of touchdowns from star tailback Michael Carter to tie the game. Carter turned a catch-and-run play into a 55-yard, emotion-turning touchdown with 45 seconds left in the half.
“I thought our kids played really hard against a great team,” Walls said. “And we were in the ballgame for most of the way.”
The score stayed that way until the biggest play by Niceville’s defense. After a teammate forced a fumble on a running play, defensive end Chase Schoener picked up the ball and ran 42 yards for the go-ahead score with 3:05 left in the third quarter.
It was among the defensive stops Niceville produced.
“They got a bunch of momentum right there,” Walls said. “We kind of had things going and that was a tough play. But it never really comes down to one play. There were other opportunities where if we get it done, we may win the ball game.”
The Eagles then got two giant plays from senior running back Shi-Kim Coward. After Navarre pinned Niceville on its own 7 with a punt, Coward broke off a 43 yard run to midfield. He then went 40 yards for a touchdown to put Niceville up by two scores.
Coward finished with three rushing touchdowns.
“He is coming off an ACL injury (last season) and he has just gotten better and better and more confident in each game,” Hicks said. “And (Friday) was his best game.”
Undaunted, Navarre got back in the game when Derrick Smith finished an 11 play, 55 yard drive with a 19 yard scoring run with 7:55 remaining. The Raiders then forced a Niceville punt. Taking over at their own 22, the Raiders were unable to get a first down and forced to punt.
They got the ball back in the final minute, but again Schoener came up with a fumble recovery following a hit and strip on Navarre quarterback Matthew Webb.
“Our defense has done that all year,” Hicks said. “I think that is our 18th or 19th turnover. And when you get a lot of people around the ball like that, good things are going to happen, and it did again (Friday night).”
Walls said, “To come over here in this type of atmosphere against a team like that and play the way we did, I thought we battled.”
NICEVILLE 35, Navarre 21
Navarre – 0 –14—0—7—21
Niceville – 7—7—7—14—35
Niceville – Drew Frederic 4 run (Zach Bailey kick), 5:03
Niceville – Shi-Kim Coward 7 run (Bailey kick), 3:49
Navarre – Michael Carter 4 pass from Matthew Webb (Luke Morton kick), 2:16
Navarre – Carter 55 run (Morton kick), 0:45
Niceville – Chase Schoener 42 fumble return (Bailey kick), 3:05
Niceville – Coward 40 run (Bailey kick), 11:49
Navarre – Derrick Smith 19 run (Morton kick), 7:55
Niceville – Eli Stove 53 pass from Colby Tuthill (Bailey kick), 2:20