Gulf Breeze’s District 2-6A championship season may have shocked the area this year, but it wasn’t much of a surprise to the Dolphins who have made intense competition a daily routine, steadily building confidence along the way.
But the shock for area spectators is understandable, as Gulf Breeze (8-1) has matched its win total from the previous three seasons combined (8-23).
Head coach Bobby Clayton, who has made it a mission for himself as well as his coaching staff to instill belief in the team and help his players prove to themselves that they can compete with anyone.
The result has been spectacular.
After last Friday, the Dolphins captured their first district championship since 1989 and avoided 10-year sweeps to Navarre, Pace and Catholic.
On Nov. 11, Gulf Breeze will host its first playoff game in program history — and with a win, the Dolphins could accomplish another program-first feat.
“Week one, the mentality was: Let’s compete to our highest ability. If something bad happens, we will overcome it and play on,” Clayton said. “We used that message for the first couple of weeks. After we won our first district game (vs. Milton), then it was kind of a snowball effect. Going into our second district game (vs. Pace), we were undefeated at home (and still are). We told the guys don’t let someone come in your house and beat you.
“That carried us to our chance to play in a district championship at Navarre (last Friday).”
The scenario for the district title at Gulf Breeze’s top rival was a picture Clayton said he began painting in the summer, when his players were working so hard they were “face down in the sand at Pensacola Beach for conditioning.”
The success has had a major impact on the team and the Gulf Breeze community, but arguably no one has the same appreciation for the program’s turnaround than Gulf Breeze defensive coordinator Mike Spencer.
In his seventh year with the Dolphins, Spencer made the transition to defensive coordinator after working with the offense for six seasons.
While he has “enjoyed” watching the season unfold with eight strong wins for the Dolphins, Spencer found Gulf Breeze’s lone loss to be extremely telling.
In the loss to West Florida, the Dolphins trailed 35-7 in the third quarter — a scenario all too familiar for Gulf Breeze’s seniors.
But the Dolphins rallied and had a shot at a two-point conversion to tie the game in the closing minutes.
“As crazy as it sounds, there was no panic,” said Spencer, who also coaches weightlifting and teaches history at Gulf Breeze. “The kids took a few adjustments that we wanted to make, and they made it a game. In years past, the team would probably have folded and (West Florida) might have put up 60.”
The way Gulf Breeze relished a chance to claw back into that game seems to be a reflection of the daily battles that occur at practice.
“Really and truly, it all goes back to the mentality that we compete at everything we do,” Spencer said. “In practice we make sure to do drills that have a distinct winner and a distinct loser. In our three-on-three drill, there is gonna be a winner and there is gonna be a loser. The three-on-one drill is great for us defensively. It helps get our guys used to the fact that blocks are coming from everywhere.
“In the past, kids could kind of coast through stuff and hide.”
This year hasn’t been the first time Clayton and Spencer have worked the sidelines together, as Clayton coached defensive backs at Gulf Breeze from 2010-13.
“I love all of my assistant coaches, but Mike is probably my right-hand man on the staff,” Clayton said. “(Spencer) and I have spent countless hours planning, talking … we even hunt together. He’s the kind of guy I lean on. This year, I told (Spencer) he was gonna have to run defense. He’s always been on the offensive side of the ball but he accepted the challenge.”
Friday night’s game at Crestview will close out the regular season and give the Dolphins a look at a potential playoff game — if Gulf Breeze and Crestview each win their first two postseason games.
“There’s no putting the cart before the horse for me,” Clayton said. “We’re still playing one week at a time. Yes, if we are (both) fortunate enough to win the first two rounds we will meet again. But for now, we are just focused on this Friday’s task. Crestview is a real good team with a good offense and defense. We can’t overlook this game.”
Regular season finale
Who: Gulf Breeze Dolphins vs. Crestview Bulldogs
Where: Crestview High
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Records: Gulf Breeze (8-1); Crestview (9-0).
Skinny: Two district champions collide in a potential regional-final playoff game. The game could come down to a classic shootout with two high-powered offenses (GB 417.9 yards-per-game; CHS 439.9 yards-per-game).