NICEVILLE — The wild, unbelievable final minutes Friday ended with a celebration requiring a do-over. There were shrieks of joy, tears of relief and exhaustion throughout.
But Tate High’s football team has a championship to embrace.
That became the most significant, impressive sight of all.
The Aggies did it. They slayed a giant, broke through after so many seasons of difficulty, so many times of enduring heartbreak. It took a high-wire, bizarre, and hold-your-breath end, but it ended well.
A 21-20 victory against region power Niceville for the Region 1-6A crown should be enjoyed like a championship season.
Because no matter what happens from here, now in the final four of one of the most competitive classifications of a powerhouse football state, the Aggies (10-2) have fulfilled a breakthrough quest.
“It is a amazing how far we have come,” said first-year Tate coach Jay Lindsey, as his players were everywhere in euphoria at Niceville’s Eagle Stadium. “I am just so proud of this team, proud of these coaches, and the support we have at Tate is second to none.”
Now, there is a season almost second to none. This is only the third time in school history Tate football has reached the state semifinals. One of the two previous times, back in 1980, ended with a state title.
But from where this senior class started, this one is the most improbable.
Tate was 1-8 when senior stars like quarterback Sawyer Smith and free safety Josh Kea were freshmen. The year before they got to Tate, the Aggies were 0-10. From zero wins to ten wins.
Tate went through six losing seasons in a span from 2005-12. These seniors had three different head coaches in their careers.
From oblivion, Tate has progressed into a region champion. The next step will be an even greater challenge, facing Seffner Armwood, a school near Tampa that has played in four Class 6A state title games in the past five years.
But few teams left in the state can compare to Tate. The Aggies had to first climb back to a district contender, then had to beat a Niceville hex of five losses in the past three seasons, most of those in lopsided fashion.
“It’s called hunger, wanting to be the best,” said Lindsey, celebrating with coaches and players on the field. “This is all about belief… Confidence is such a key to anything in life and that’s what we have got going for us.”
It was over Friday… and then it wasn’t. A 21-3 lead had evaporated to 21-20 with 90 seconds left. Tate tailback Dee Thompson, running on fumes and guts with top tailback Alondo Thompkins on crutches with a knee injury from the first half, somehow got a first down to kill most of the clock.
And then Lindsey made the brilliant call to tell quarterback Sawyer Smith to intentionally take a safety and take off enough seconds that it left only a kickoff.
But even that, after a zillion laterals, a guy down — then he wasn’t — and officials throwing flags and saying Tate had to do it all over again, it still had a repeat celebration.
“The way it ended, man that was terrifying,” Smith said.
“Coming out in the second half, we knew we had to grind,” Smith said. “Dee dug down deep and he was playing hurt.”
Lindsey knew this wouldn’t be easy, even though it seemed like it was for most of the game. Tate scored on the first play of the game. They jumped out to a 21-0 lead at halftime. They led 21-3 with five minutes and change left.
“When you play a program like them, they are going to fight and battle back. and make plays when they needed to make them,” Lindsey said. “Our kids never stalled. I am just so proud of this program and these kids.”
So much of this season has to be credited to the job Ronnie Douglas did at Tate for the previous two seasons. He started the ball rolling in the right direction. He got the players committed, the students excited, the parents behind him. And Lindsey, a chip off the old block from his acclaimed father, Mickey Lindsey, carried it through.
“When we got a new coach and Coach Douglas came in (his sophomore year), we knew we had something special,” Kea said. “You could just sense it, you could feel it. And then (last night) we played the best we’ve played all season.”
It was going to take that to beat Niceville.
Mickey Lindsey knew it. He was sitting on the 30-yard line with Tate fans. In the final seconds, he was on the field, yelling and pumped as he was as Pace coach.
“I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “This was just as tough as it was coaching on the sidelines. It’s an awful feeling when you in the stands.”
But now he was on the field, smiling as Tate players put a helmet on the injured, crestfallen Thompkins and pumped his spirits by getting him to scream the Aggies cheer.
As players walked out of the stadium, they had to walk through an empty Niceville student section.
“Look at all this confetti,” said one player.
“They left it for us.”
Time to party, Tate. Enjoy the moment.