High School : : General
Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Eagles project Panhandle pride

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Niceville Senior Baseball

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If a driver were to spend about a week on the road bisecting the state of Florida from north to south sometime in the next couple of months, stopping only for food, gas, bathroom breaks and high school baseball games, that traveler might be surprised at what was observed.

The baseball scene in the Perfect Game High School Florida Region is a diverse one, at least when viewed from the state’s two furthermost points: The relatively wide-open counties in the Panhandle to the north and west, and the populous urban centers of Dade and Broward counties to the southeast.

High school baseball is played at a high level in every Florida county, but it is Broward and Dade with the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Miami as their hubs that receive most of the attention nationally. The Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan areas are also home to PG HS national championship-caliber programs, of course.

But the 70 high schools the website panhandlehighschoolbaseball.com considers to be Florida Panhandle schools that have baseball programs also have their own identity, and they’re proud of their standing on the state map; those programs compete in all eight Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) enrollment classifications (1A-8A).

Many of them are more than capable of competing on an equal footing with Florida’s powerhouses to the south, even if at times they feel like distant cousins trying to crash into the state’s vibrant and competitive high school baseball scene.

“It’s hard to feel a part of it because we’re so far away,” Niceville Senior High School elite junior shortstop prospect and Louisiana State commit Rece Hinds told PG this week. “Once we can get into the playoffs it starts to feel like we’re getting a little bit more into it, but during the regular season and districts and regionals, it can feel like you’re in your own state sometimes.”

Panhandle programs are no strangers to the state tournament regardless of class, of course. It’s just that during the regular season they go about their business in relative obscurity compared with the rest of the state.

The Niceville Senior Eagles compete in FHSAA Class 7A District 2, along with the Crestview Bulldogs, Milton Panthers and the Navarre Raiders. The only other 7A district in the Panhandle is District 1, which includes two of the area’s top programs, the Pace Patriots and the Tate Aggies.

Niceville is a community with about 15,000 residents that sits in the shadow of Elgin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, in a bayou setting that opens into Choctawhatchee Bay. It’s only about a 20-minute drive down to the white sand beaches of Fort Walton Beach, and then on east with more white sand in the Gulf Shore beach communities of Destin and Miramar Beach. This is Florida’s Emerald Coast, or what is known more colloquially as the Redneck Riviera.

Pensacola, Fla., is about an hour’s drive to the west and Mobile, Ala., about another 45 minutes farther on; New Orleans beckons from about 260 miles to the west. Tallahassee – the Florida state capital and home to Florida State University – is a little more than a two-hour drive to the east. It takes more than eight hours to drive from Niceville to those high school baseball hotbeds of Broward and Dade counties to the far south and east.

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NICEVILLE SENIOR HS WAS ESTABLISHED IN 1964 AND ITS ENROLLMENT in grades 9-12 is nearly 2,000 students. The school has won state championships in football, boys’ and girls’ cross country, softball, girls’ golf and girls’ tennis through the years, but the baseball program is still looking for its first.

Eagles head coach Rod Taylor holds the firm belief that the baseball being played by the schools in the Panhandle is every bit as good as anywhere else in the state, and that includes an area that stretches from Pensacola in the west all the way over to Jacksonville on the Atlantic Coast. He mentioned specifically Pace (Fla.), Mosley (Panama City) and Tate (Cantonment); Tallahassee Lincoln High School won a FHSAA Class 8A state championship last spring.

This year’s Niceville Senior team features six prospects with NCAA Division-I scholarships, and they have high hopes that they will get to face some teams from other parts of the state by making a deep run into the playoffs this spring.

“For the guys on the baseball team, we’ve never had the experience of making it out of our Panhandle area,” senior right-hander and Vanderbilt signee Chance Huff told PG. “I guess you could say it kind of feels like we’re in a little bubble, but hopefully we’ll break out of that little bubble this year.”

With their proximity to some outstanding high school programs in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia it would be understandable if the Niceville players felt more of a kinship with those schools than the ones from central or south Florida. That isn’t the case, however, because they never play against those out-of-state teams.

But travel ball has brought the players together away from their high school teams, so friendships have been made in that regard. The top players on Niceville Senior’s roster play for Georgia-based Team Elite or 5 Star National, the Mississippi-based East Coast Sox and the Florida-based Scorpions Baseball, among others.

Those powerhouse travel programs put a national spotlight on the country’s top prospects each year, and top guys like Huff and Hinds are grateful for the exposure they’ve provided. But there is something to be said for playing with your high school team, especially at a school like Niceville Senior; these guys have known each other their entire lives.

“We’ve all grown up together, we’ve all played on middle-school teams together, on travel ball teams together; pretty much everything,” Huff said. “Everyone feeds off each other; everyone is going to go out there and do their best. It’s made me a better (teammate) … and it’s taught me how to be a good team player, how to put others first; you focus more on team chemistry than on yourself.”

Huff, ranked No. 256 nationally in the class of 2018, feels like he’s in a win-win season when it comes to his two baseball lives. In the spring, he gets to play with the guys he’s been friends with all his life while wearing a Niceville Senior Eagles in uniform. This past summer he put on a Team Elite uniform and got to play with about a half-dozen other prospects – most from Georgia – who had also committed to Vanderbilt.

Hinds, ranked No. 4 nationally in the class of 2019, started his freshman season at Niceville Senior on the junior varsity before quickly being moved to the varsity, but once there he struggled. He stuck with it, became more determined to learn and develop, and now he’s considered one of the top players in the country in his class; he hit .318 with 11 home runs and 24 RBI in 30 games as a sophomore.

“I’ve always been playing outside of the Panhandle with my travel ball teams, so I don’t get to play with my friends that much,” during the summer, Hinds said. “Being able to play a whole spring season with them every year, it’s awesome; it’s a great experience. … Playing with these guys makes you realize that you have to be a better teammate than you do a better player.

“Playing with your friends that you’ve known all your life, basically, is so much more different than playing travel ball when you don’t know your (teammates) as well as you should,” he continued. “We’ve only had two practices, but you can just tell the chemistry is a lot better; we’re out there having fun.”

The senior Huff and the junior Hinds attract a lot of attention but there are other high-profile prospects on the Eagles’ roster, as well. Senior infielder Nic Nolan (top-500) is a Florida Gulf Coast University signee, junior infielder Connor Walsh (No. 369) is committed to Ole Miss, and junior right-handers Sean Goodwin (top-500) and Harrison Dorsett (252) have committed to Tennessee and Ole Miss, respectively.

“We lost a couple of (seniors) but last year we were a young team – sophomores and juniors,” Hinds said. “So, this year is looking pretty good, especially with our pitching; we have three D-I commits on our pitching staff. And our lineup has a lot of raw power.”

Taylor acknowledges the presence of his six D-I recruits and the impact they can have on a season, but he also points out that three of them are pitchers-only. He laughed when he told PG that he’d feel a lot better about the situation if he could pencil-in all six into the everyday lineup, but he’s perfectly happy with four in there most days.

“We’ve got a good mesh of kids; they get along, the team chemistry is great,” Taylor said. “We’ve got some power in the lineup, we’ve got some team speed in the lineup, and as long as we pitch well and play good defense – which is something we did very well last year – we’ll have a chance to win a lot of ballgames.”

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HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL IS A FICKLE ENTITY REGARDLESS of where it’s being played. There are going to be nights during the regular season when the opponent will be much less than formidable, and that’s as true in the Panhandle as it is in other parts of Florida – or the country.

The way FHSAA postseason bracket-play is structured favors teams with one, overpowering, elite pitcher. Teams playing in their respective regional final would be playing only their third game in three weeks – there is only one game a week leading up to the state tournament – meaning that ace would be able to start all three games.

It also means that a team like Niceville Senior could use its superb pitching depth to win a ton of games throughout the regular season only to see that depth become irrelevant in the playoffs.

Taylor doesn’t complain about the set-up because he basically has three aces of his own; Huff, Goodwin and Dorsett can hold their own against anyone. He simply feels that a best-of-3 series during regional play would better determine which team is the best from top-to-bottom. Any way it’s sliced, the Eagles are still going to have to go out and perform every night out.

“They’re going to have to commit to what we’re doing,” Taylor said. “If you can’t get every one of your players committed to what you’re doing then you’re constantly fighting that battle. One thing you don’t want to do is fight against your team and the opponent.”

There is no reason to believe not everyone is on board with the program this year. The players have been working hard in the weight room trying to get bigger and stronger – some things don’t change from region to region – and what Taylor likes about it that they’re seeing the positives that result from hard work.

Taylor was the head coach at Niceville Senior in the mid to late 1990s, got away from it for about 20 years, and then took control of the program again last season. He stepped right in and led the Eagles to a 19-11 mark and spot in the FHSAA Class 7A regional quarterfinals where they were eliminated by Tate, the Panhandle power that has won seven state championships, most recently in 2005.

The Eagles’ goal this year is to return to the playoffs and make a run to the regional championship. That would mean a berth in the state tournament – the Class 7A final-four – and a chance to go head-to-head against teams from outside the Panhandle; there isn’t a kid on the roster who doesn’t think that’s possible.

“I feel like this is a super special group that we have,” Huff said. “Everyone’s played together, everyone’s all pretty much best friends on the team, so the team chemistry is going to be super good. The talent is all there, so hopefully we should be able to put it all together.”

Added Hinds: “I think we have a pretty good chance at making a postseason run but our goal right now is to win the district championship; we’ll be focusing on that.”

Good baseball will be played all across the state of Florida this spring, from Pensacola to Pompano Beach, Tallahassee to Tampa and Niceville to Naples. And who knows? Maybe this will be the season the Niceville Senior Eagles represent the Panhandle at the Class 7A state championship in Fort Myers.

“The ceiling is what it wants to be for this group; they can be as good as they want to be,” Taylor said. “If they play like they’re capable of playing, I feel pretty good about whoever it is that steps on the field and plays against us. As long as we’re on our game, I think we’ve got a chance to win every ballgame we’re going to play.

“That might not happen, but there’s no sense in doing it if you don’t want to get out there and try to win every game when you step between the white lines.”

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