PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Football practice on Thanksgiving is customary at Trinity Christian and Bolles, even Baker County and Union County to some degree.
At Nease, it hasn’t happened that often at all.
But on Thursday morning, it was a full-on celebration of something a long time in the making. Not since 2007 have the Panthers practiced on Thanksgiving morning, a day before another state playoff game.
And this season didn’t appear to be the one to change that history either.
Nease was coming off back-to-back one-win seasons, even a running joke among students at the school players said. No one’s laughing now, especially not at Spruce Creek or Niceville, the region’s No. 2 and 3 seeds, respectively, who had their seasons ended by those unsung Panthers.
This next challenge will be the biggest for Nease, which visits top-seeded Gainesville Buchholz in the Region 1-7A final on Friday night.
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That’s not all that’s on tap for local teams as the season heads to the finish line.
In Region 1-5A, Baker County hosts Wakulla. In Region 1-4A, Bolles visits South Walton. Trinity Christian hosts Quincy Munroe Day in 1-2A and Union County visits Chiefland in 3-1A. In Class 3A in south Georgia, Pierce County hosts Peach County in the state quarterfinals.
It’s a busy and high stakes night. Win or go home.
“It’s fun because we’re out here on Thanksgiving because not most people get to experience that,” said Trinity linebacker Caden Morrell. “But most important we just got to stay locked in and do what we got to do. Learn the team and learn the offensive schemes and defensive schemes and get ready to play.”
Those latter four Florida programs still going strong in the state playoffs feels normal.
Union County won three consecutive state titles from 1994-96, a run that saw it notch 52 straight wins, second in state history behind Lakeland’s 53. Baker County played for a state championship as recently as 2017 and has been a constant postseason team the past decade.
Bolles and Trinity are state football royalty.
But Nease? What year is it again?
The Panthers had a historic run in the mid-2000s when Craig Howard put together a spectacular body of work. The Tim Tebow-led teams of 2003-05 were special, with the ‘05s winning the Class 4A state championship. They went back with Ted Stachitas under center in 2006 and ‘07 but fell short in epic clashes with Tampa Plant and Miami’s Booker T. Washington.
Nease had been way down the past two seasons under coach Collin Drafts, winning one game in both of those years. The team just didn’t instill a lot of confidence with those performances and it was very easy to write off this year’s squad, too, said linebacker Ben Bogle. Players knew they were doubted.
“We have this shirt that says ‘they,’ crossed out. It means like they weren’t with us when we were 1-9, they hated us, they made fun of us. And now, they want to be fans,” he said. “They want to be with us. And so, I mean, it feels really good that we were able to turn the whole culture around.”
At Nease, the abundance of visitors who showed up for the 9 a.m. practice were former players. Numerous athletes from the 2005, ‘06 and ‘07 teams came out to support the current iteration of the Panthers.
“This is something that, me personally, had envisioned coming into Nease three years ago. I knew that we could get to this point. We sold the boys the dream and laid out the plan and they’ve executed. And it hasn’t only been this year,” Drafts said.
“I mean, you’ve got about 40 to 50 alumni behind me, a lot of them that played for me my first year in 2019. They kind of did the dirty work, you know, those first two years. And now, this team in 2021 gets to reap the benefits of that. Nease is a special place and we’re just excited to be playing football right now.”
For programs like Bolles and Trinity, Thanksgiving practices are the norm and the expectation. The Bulldogs have 11 state championships, second in state history to St. Thomas Aquinas’ 12. Trinity has eight, tied for fourth in state history. Bolles coach Matt Toblin has had the Bulldogs in the regional final in each of his three seasons.
He said earlier in the week that a team getting to the Thanksgiving Day hurdle is an opportunity to appreciate the current team’s accomplishments and pay respect to the previous teams that came before it.
Verlon Dorminey, who reached the 300 career win milestone this season, has the only defending state champion in the area. The Conquerors won the Class 3A crown last year but are playing in 2A this season. Dorminey, who has won all eight titles at Trinity, said that Thanksgiving week is a special time. Students are off. It’s a lower-stress week with school out and there’s more of a family atmosphere around the program, with food on hand and alumni back paying visits.
“A lot of it is relax and let your kids enjoy it, you know because they’ve gotten this far. I tell our kids all the time Friday night’s really important because there is no Monday if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do on Friday night,” Dorminey said. “So, you know, don’t put a lot of pressure on them, let them play fast, just keep everything very simple and go play football.”
Baker County coach Kevin Mays’ team came up short in an agonizing regional final loss to Rickards last year and said that it’s up to he and his coaching staff to drill in just how quickly things can end.
He’s been part of many coaching staffs who have made it to Thanksgiving Day practices, but each one is unique. The challenge every year — emphasizing how precious this time is.
“Kids live in the moment and it’s tough, but you try to make them realize that, you know the seniors, their football careers could be over here at any point,” he said. “Obviously, we want to get them two more games after this one, but just telling them just to cherish all these moments, that it’s special to be here. There’s only eight teams in 5A left practicing on Thanksgiving and it’s a special time.”