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‘We all wanted to win:’ After years of struggles, Nease football team sees hard work pay off

Panthers won their first playoff game since 2008 last week

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The remaking of the Nease football program started the hard way.

One win in 2019. One in 2020.

But coach Collin Drafts preached patience and hard work and ownership. He said that the coaching staff had to sell players a dream and hope that they bought into it when the results weren’t easy to see.

Those results are easy to see now.

“It’s a hard thing to do, especially in this day and age where people want instant success,” said Drafts, the third-year Nease coach. “And we’ve you know, we’ve had players that have quit. We’ve had players that have left, that’s part of it, too. But the guys that have hung around are now experiencing the payoff. And again, all the credit goes to them. It’s a hard thing to do.”

That payoff is still going. Nease (8-3) is in the second round of the state playoffs for the first time since 2008 after an upset win over second-seeded Spruce Creek in the Region 1-7A quarterfinals last week. And they’ll try and do it again on Friday night when they travel to face third-seeded Niceville (10-1).

“It’s been something new. I mean, winning this many games. I mean, we haven’t done it before,” said senior Dom Henry, an 1,100-yard receiver in the regular season. “And it’s just a good experience. I mean, we all love it.”

If the words ‘Nease’ and ‘playoffs’ seem an unlikely pairing, it’s because there hasn’t been much of the latter for the former.

The last time the Panthers won a state playoff game came way back in 2008, with the residuals from a golden era of St. Johns County football still spilling over. Nease was still riding the wave of momentum of making a county record three consecutive state championship games under coach Craig Howard.

The Panthers won the Class 4A crown in 2005 when Tim Tebow was a senior. They went back in 2006 and ‘07 with Ted Stachitas running the show. Howard left for the Columbia job in 2008 and defensive coordinator Danny Cowgill was promoted. He led the Panthers to the playoffs — and their last playoff win — that season.

Drafts was aware of that history and saw the potential of a Nease program that had fallen on lean times. The Panthers last won a district title in 2015 under Tim Krause, upsetting St. Augustine in overtime to end a 11-year, 50-game Yellow Jackets’ district winning streak. But Nease went one and done in the playoffs and didn’t go back again until last season when no qualification criteria existed due to the pandemic.

It was a slow rebuild, just the kind Drafts wanted to take on.

“I mean, to be honest with you, that’s one of the things that kind of drew me to Nease. I’m always up for a challenge, and it had been done before. You know Craig Howard did a phenomenal job. Obviously, you have a player like Tebow to come in, that helps, too,” Drafts said. “We’ve got good players, too. And I knew we could get it done. I knew that the pieces were here to get it done. We’ve got the right players. We’ve got a great coaching staff, we’ve got great support.”

How did Drafts get the buy in from players after back-to-back one-win seasons?

“I feel like that’s kind of part of our story. That’s why we’re where we’re at right now. We went through those tough times and that class kind of came through,” he said. “We always kind of had this year circled. We felt like we could be good in year three if the boys worked hard and bought in and they’ve definitely done that.”

A massive senior class (36 upperclassmen) endured those turbulent years and cranked up their own expectation for what they expected from themselves in 2021.

“You know, us not being as good as we hoped to be [in 2019 and ‘20], you know, like, the fans, not even the fans, like the kids around our school, the people around us, not believing in us and … we all wanted to win,” said Nease receiver/linebacker Donovan Wilson. “So like, we all had a common goal we knew we wanted. And so it was just us working together and actually making it happen.”

Linebacker Ben Bogle, one of the top defensive players in the area, said players were unified in what they wanted and felt that they had the talent and the drive to make that possible this year.

“We all knew that we all wanted the same goal, we all wanted to beat PV [rival Ponte Vedra] we all wanted to get to the playoffs, we all wanted to win,” Bogle said. “… Our entire team is very competitive people and we all want to win, and if we don’t win, it’s not good. So, I mean, we’re winners. So, we do whatever it takes.”

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.