Two late goals lifted Niceville past Gainesville in the Region 1 Class 6A Final, giving the Hurricanes their first loss of the season.
Junior Daniel Brown scored for the No. 2 seed Gainesville High School (GHS) boys soccer team in the 15th minute of the game, following up on a loose ball after a shot from the 18-yard line. The goal, Brown’s fifth of the season, placed the ‘Canes in the lead until No. 4 seed Niceville scored twice with 12 minutes left in the match.
The loss ends state playoff hopes for Gainesville (16-1-1) and recalls last season’s end when GHS also lost in the region finals to a lower seed. Both times the Hurricanes entered undefeated and lost 2-1.
“I think our guys played well throughout the entire game,” Gainesville coach Basil Benjamin said. “I think, in the end, we just need a little bit more effort and to get into some proper spaces defensively.”
Niceville (16-4-3) will now enter the state semifinals, facing the Fort Myers Green Wave on Feb. 18. Wednesday’s win comes after toppling top-ranked Chiles (Tallahassee) last week, avenging their loss from two weeks before.
Both teams had scoring opportunities in the first half, and Niceville’s Ayden Morales almost scored first with a close-range shot from the left. Junior goalkeeper Elijah Witt blocked the shot and sent it out of bounds.
On the subsequent corner kick, he caught a header aimed for the goal and kept the Eagles scoreless.
Benjamin said Witt had a phenomenal game and noted his improvement from last year.
“He's a guy that had trouble even being in the team last year,” Benjamin said. “And he committed himself to the season, and he was excellent.”
Just three minutes after Witt’s saves, Brown grabbed the game’s first goal.
In the second half, Niceville kept pushing for a goal, and Benjamin said the team struggled with the intensity.
“I think in some situations we got sped up a little, and we weren't communicating and making good decisions,” Benjamin said.
The match also grew more physical in the second half with both teams taking free kicks from fouls.
Gainesville senior Samual Ponce took a free kick early in the half that Niceville’s Tanner Boxberger caught. With 15 minutes left, Ponce had another opportunity from a few yards outside the box that Boxberger deflected and gathered before the chance of a follow up.
With 12 minutes left Niceville’s Morales capitalized on another opening, finding the net after the ball bounced around inside the box. That marked Morales’ third goal of the season.
Niceville renewed the attack and kept the ball on GHS’s side of the field. With less than a minute left, junior Adrian Pearson scored his first goal of the season, finalizing the Eagle’s spot in the state tournament.
“In the second half, we stepped up our aggressiveness to try to go score and our pressure, and it paid off with two goals,” Niceville coach Wes Nelson said.
He said the team has its sights on the state final game, and the team won’t feel finished until they get there.