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Author: Brian Lester

Young Royals relying on stellar defensive effort to fuel success

In those three games, a team has yet to hit the 40-point mark against the Royals, and there is no doubt defense will be a key to their success this season.

“It’s going to be vital,” Jay head coach Jorey Diamond said. “Our defense gets us going on the offensive end. A lot of times, it fuels our offense.”

Jaylen Routley is the lone senior and Madalyn Grimes is the team’s only junior. Seven players are either eighth graders or freshmen.

“We’re going to kind of learn as we go,” Diamond said. “You have to take the good days with the bad days. We’re working on the things we need to work on and trying to be patient. That’s the biggest thing.”

Though there will be up and down moments, and even some growing pains, Diamond knows he can count on his team to compete night in and night out. Effort doesn’t appear as if it’s ever going to be an issue.

“I love how competitive we are,” Diamond said. “The thing we have to do because we are so young is learn how to not be an enemy to ourselves. We are our own worst enemy at times. If we can get that out of our game, I feel good about where this group is headed.”

Defensively, the Royals get after it. Offensively, there is some work to do. 

“We’ve got to execute on offense. I love how we play defense. I never have to question that,” Diamond said.

Contending in the district in beyond, however, in the 1A classification means finding a way to knock off Paxton. The two teams were slated to meet for the first time on Dec. 6 in Jay.

“We’re looking to shortening the gap. We’ll see if we can do that a little and make a run,” Diamond said.

Diamond is looking forward to seeing how things play out this year after all the work his team put in during the months leading up to the season.

“I’m excited. I know we are young, but the girls have worked hard in the off-season. If we can get the kinks worked out, we’re going to be alright.”

Jay boys basketball team takes aim at district title and more

“Each season we are trying to add another level to what we did the year before,” Jay head coach Hank Hullett said. “In order to get over the hump, we have to increase our defensive intensity. We’ve been working on that. I expect us to make the next jump.”

The players echo Hullett’s thoughts on defense.

“It is about defense. We have to step up,” Ethan McDonald said. “Everything starts with playing great on defense.”

McDonald is also pretty good on the offensive end of the floor. He averaged 22 points per game last year while Tristan Watson poured in 17.4 points per outing.

Both will be counted on to help lead the way again last year. 

“I want to have more assists and play better defense. I can’t really take credit for the points. It’s my teammates,” Watson said. “Leadership is going to be a big key. I want to be a great leader.”

Hullett leans heavily on his players to lead the way and he knows his players are going to put forth a lot of effort night in and night out.

“It’s a player driven team,” Hullett said. “I love these guys and love being around them. But this is their team. Our style of play has to be defensive minded. We have to stop people in order to do the things we say we want to do.

“Offensively we do a lot of ball screen stuff and have players that can shoot. We want to take advantage of that,” Hullett continued. “We have good playmakers with the ball and a lot of tools. We’re trying to find the best way to utilize that.”

Expectations are high for the Royals. They have lost in the district final the last three seasons. Jay will host the district tourney this season and is hungry for revenge after falling to Paxton 62-56 in the district title game a year ago before losing to Paxton 57-48 in the regional.

McDonald is determined to not have history repeat itself again.

“We’re not losing that game again. We want to make it there and win it,” McDonald said.

Jaguar girls basketball team setting bar high under new head coach

“When I first took the job, I said my name is Lewayne Jones and my goal for this group is to win a district championship,” Jones said.

It’s an achievement Central hasn’t experienced in 23 years and Jones believes he has a roster with the talent to make it happen.

It all starts with Autumn Boutwell, one of the area’s top scoring threats. She’s only a sophomore and poured in 25 points in Central’s 51-43 season-opening win over Pensacola Christian. Lily Mathews added 11 points and Sasha Hatcher scored 9 points as Central got things started on the right foot.

Jones likes what he has seen from his team early on.

“They hold each other accountable and are very supportive of each other,” Jones said. “It’s a hungry team, and sometimes it can be hard to motivate young players, but these girls are motivated to get better every day.”

Central has a smaller lineup, which means it will rely on its ability to get off good shots and defend hard.
“Us being smaller, we’re going to try and spread teams out, have great ball movement and take the best shot,” Jones said. “As far as the defensive side goes, we’ll run a lot of schemes from man to zone. We want to control the tempo.”

Jones said being at a new school has been great so far and he said the program is well-supported by the community.

He hopes to see the Jaguars build on what they have accomplished already and continue to put in the work to be successful as they take aim at winning a district crown and punching a ticket to the regional.

“I’m big on culture and our culture is built on togetherness and hard work every day that we are here in the gym. We are going to put our hard hats on and get to work.”

Player-led Panthers look to play hard and keep it simple on soccer field

Milton has a younger team this year, with three freshmen in the starting lineup as well as two former JV players also in the lineup.

That youth factor has led Murphy to have her older players, including captains Paige Phillips and Priscilla Coatney, to help lead the way in practice and help the younger players adapt to live at the varsity level.

Veteran players like Gretchen Dedolph and Mackenzie Turcic, both seniors, are also stepping up.

“I’ve encouraged more player-led activities, more player-led coaching. A good team is led by a coach, but we want to be a great team, and a great team is player led,” Murphy said. “I want to make sure I’m giving the girls confidence to do that.”

That approach is also benefiting the older players.

“It’s helping them develop more, too,” Murphy said. “It’s making them play simple soccer. We don’t want to complicate the game. It’s a simple game, and I think with the older girls helping the younger ones, it helps them think of the game in a more simple way.”

The Panthers were 1-2-1 heading into the Thanksgiving break and are coming off a 7-9-4 campaign a year ago that saw them finish as the district runner-up and advance to the regional.

Phillips led Milton with 24 goals a year ago as one of the top scoring threats in the area. Murphy is counting on older players like Philips to use the experience of last year to their advantage.

“They know what it takes, and they expect a lot out of themselves and their teammates. They know it’s important to practice the way we want to play,” Murphy said.

Nothing is going to come easy this season, especially in a district that features area powers Gulf Breeze and Navarre as well as a Pace program on the rise.

“It’s going to be challenging, but I’m excited about our district. It’s going to prepare us for the postseason if we get there,” Murphy said.

And the key to being in the mix for the postseason?

“It’s going to take a lot of heart,” Murphy said. “We have to make the game simple and not overthink. Soccer can be overwhelming. It comes at you fast. We have to be smart with the soccer ball. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Panther boys soccer team changing mentality and culture

Clements said this team is mostly a new group, though there are a handful of returning players, including Braden Brune, who is the top returning goal scorer. He tallied six goals last season.

Adrian Palacios, Christopher Hunter, Vincent West, Carson Farkas, Hunter Weekley, Grant Mills and Zachary Roy are also back from last season.

The Panthers were still searching for their first win heading into Thanksgiving break, going 0-2-1 in their first four outings, but Clements has seen his team battle throughout the opening stretch, losing a one-goal game to Catholic (3-2) and tying Navarre (2-2).

Clements is glad to see that his team has been competitive against area opponents.

“When I took over I wanted to close the gap and I think we’ve started to do that,” Clements said.

The one thing Clements has liked about this team in the early going is how well the players respond to coaching.

“These guys are so coachable,” Clements said. “They take everything in like a sponge and do what I ask of them. It’s a good group and we have to keep working hard going forward.”

Clements said the expectations are high for the team but won’t go into specific goals for now.

“We have individual and team goals, and we have them within,” Clements said. “The guys know they want to do this year.”

What Clements will say about his team, however, is that his players will always put forth a solid effort.

“They’ve got heart and they don’t give up,” Clements said. “It’s going to take hard work to be successful, and they have to come in and give everything they have. They are doing that.”

There is still a lot of soccer yet to be played. Milton was scheduled to play Rocky Bayou on Monday and then play at Pace on Friday. They close out the week Saturday against Bay at home.

“We want to continue to make progress, play clam, be confident and play with composure,” Clements said. “If we do that, we’ll be fine.”

Brian Out Loud

UWF defeated Limestone 45-19 in the opening round of the 2022 postseason to add another chapter to what has been a remarkable run of success for the program.

Seven years ago, here on the land Pen Air Field now sits on, there was nothing more than a practice field, a few trailers for makeshift locker rooms and a dream that this UWF football program could one day bask in the glory of success.

So, on that note, even with the lack of cooperation from Mother Nature, it was fun to see the Argos get to play in front of their fans, on their campus, and treat those in attendance to another historic win for a program that seems to make a habit of notching them.

Until this year, UWF had played its games at Blue Wahoos Stadium. Having games on campus has created a different vibe to game day, and the playoff game was no exception.

This was the 10th playoff win for the Argos, but the first they have ever won at home. They had a chance to win a home playoff game last year at Blue Wahoos Stadium, but things didn’t quite go as planned. The Argos were stunned by upset-minded Newberry 33-30 in overtime on a day when things just fell flat.

You could sense the players didn’t want a repeat of that disappointment. Riding the high of a second consecutive share of the Gulf South Conference title, UWF came into the day determined to capture the redemption it was seeking.

For a while in the opening half, we wondered if it would happen. Limestone was hyped and ready for the challenge in front of it. The Saints didn’t score on their opening drive, getting stopped near the goal line, but they did make things tough on the Argos in the early going to keep the game close.

With just eight minutes and 40 seconds left in the half, the Argos were clinging to a 10-6 lead. It didn’t feel safe. UWF finally turned the tide before halftime, though, and did enough to pull out a win that, at times, felt much closer than the final score indicated.

I was glad to see the Argos come through with the win, but it also got me thinking about the shopping list of accomplishments this program has enjoyed in six full seasons of football.

The Argos have had five consecutive winning seasons. They’ve been to the national championship game twice, winning it all in 2019, and they have been to the postseason four times.

You’d be hard pressed to find a program so young that has achieved so much, but the Argos set the bar high for themselves early on in their existence. Only time will tell what the future holds for UWF.

But it’s amazing to think that once upon a time all that existed was a practice field and hope, and now what we have is a program that has made a lot of its big dreams come true.

Brian Out Loud

But unlike a lot of teams, Pace dealt with a little extra ahead of its playoff game against Buchholz in Gainesville.

The Patriots weren’t sure if they were going to play on a Thursday – the original date of the game – Friday or Saturday because of the storm threat off the East Coast of Florida. All they knew was that at some point they would play football.

The game ended up being played on a Friday at a neutral site, and the Patriots, who had to travel to Gainesville and back on the same day, put forth the best effort they possibly could.

They overcame an early 13-point deficit and nearly rallied for a win. At one point, Pace had the lead. It just couldn’t hang onto it in the end, losing in the final minute as the Bobcats converted a two-point conversion and prevailed 35-34.

As far as heartbreakers go, it doesn’t get much tougher than the way Pace lost in the postseason.

But the Patriots walked off the field that night with their heads held high and no regrets. They know that once they look past the surface of defeat, they can look back on that experience and realize they gave that game everything they had.

There are lessons to be taken from the experience that will benefit the players long after their days of playing football for their high school team are done. That includes the lesson that things aren’t always going to go your way, but it doesn’t mean that situation has to define you.

The Patriots didn’t let it define them.

They also didn’t let it bother them that little was expected of them this season or in the playoffs. Defying the odds is indeed possible. Critics and doubters can say what they want but games are ultimately played on the field.

The Patriots handled the uncertainty of its playoff week as well as any team could. They didn’t let the adversity affect them nor did they let the things that were out of their control, like weather and travel plans, drive them crazy.

They remained focused in spite of it all, staying locked in on the task at hand, because in the end, that was all they could do.

Their performance on game day proved as much. Pace was in that game against Buchholz until the end.

Obviously Pace wanted to win its football game. It wanted to keep going in the postseason. That’s the dream and the goal. And maybe if another play or two goes its way, the outcome is different.

For the players coming back next season, they know they have something to strive for and work for. They know that even when little is expected of you, that you can go out and prove people wrong. Pace loses a talented class of seniors, but a lot of talent is coming back.

Pace won’t fly under the radar in 2023. But that’s okay. The Patriots will embrace those expectations and handle them just like they’ve handled everything else, and that’s with hard work, heart and will to battle through any adversity they face along the way.

Panthers battle Raiders to a tie in rivalry game

Still, as Milton walked off the field after the game, the score even at 2-2, it came away with the feeling that it was the better team.

“We were by far the better team the whole game,” Clements said. “They had us the first four or five minutes, but we dominated after that.”

Missed opportunities cost the Panthers (0-2) a chance to notch their first win of the season.

“We missed two PKs. We had some other chances we didn’t take, but we’ll learn from this. Overall, I’m proud of the boys. When I took over this program, I wanted to close the gap, and I think we are closing it.”

Clements is in his first year at the helm of the Panthers and is eager to change the culture of the program.

He has seen the players take steps forward in the early going, competing hard the entire 80 minutes, and he likes the opportunities his team is creating. Against the Raiders, Clements knows Milton should have had more goals.

“Things just didn’t fall for us. On another day, we score five or six. Offensively, we are sound, and we didn’t give anything away defensively,” Clements said.

The Panthers trailed 1-0 and 2-1 but managed to tie the score each time. Kai Sam and Hunter Weekley both scored the equalizers for Milton in a tightly contested and physical game.

This is a mostly new team this year and Clements said his players have been putting in the work to be successful.

In its opener against Catholic on Monday night, Milton trailed 3-1 at the half and lost 3-2. Vincent West and Brandon Castillo both scored goals in that game.

There were similarities in both games from an effort standpoint.

“These guys have heart,” Clements said. “They have a winning mentality now and they don’t give up.”

Milton Panther wrestling program ready to roar

Alex Alvarado is in his first full season as the head coach. He runs the youth club program as well as the high school program, which competes during the FHSAA season. The time put into it is worth it.

“We’re trying to build something from the ground up. It’s a big task,” Alvarado said. “It’s not like we are taking something that is polished and trying to polish it better, but in the short amount of time, we’ve come a long way.”

Sophomore Alexis Brown is in her second year of the program. She got into the sport because of her family.

“My family supports me in everything I do, and my brother and dad wrestled. They helped me find what I love, and this is it,” Brown said.

And why does she love it so much?

“It’s very intense, but I like intensity. It keeps me going,” Brown said.

While Brown isn’t a newcomer to the sport, junior Juan Castillo is. He said he was inspired to get into wrestling while doing Ju Jitsu.

“A person I did Ju Jitsu with was a wrestler, and he would teach me different moves. It seemed cool,” Castillo said. “I decided to give it a try this year.”

It’s been a challenging sport to adapt to, according to Castillo.

“It’s tough, tougher than I expected, but it’s good,” Castillo said. “I like wrestling and I want to keep working hard to get better at it.”

A will to work is what matters most Alvarado. Sure, winning is a big deal, and everyone loves to win, but the sport is about so much more than that.

There have been instances where wrestlers have tried the sport out but soon learned it wasn’t for them.

“This is not a participation thing,” Alvarado said. “You don’t have to win, but you have to come here ready to give 100% and have the right work ethic. Not everyone is going to be a champion, but we’re building more than just wrestlers here. We’re building young adults, and that’s the bigger goal. Our kids are going to work hard and give opponents a run for their money.”

Sixth-grader Zeyn Dillon is ready to strive for greatness. He believes the experience he gained last year when he won a youth state championship is going to benefit him this season.

“The experience is going to help a lot,” Dillon said. “My goal is to go to the Junior Olympics, and I hope to win another state title.”

Brown has high hopes as well.

“I went to state last year but didn’t place. This year I hope to go pull out the title. I want to win it all,” Brown said.

Alvarado loves seeing the confidence in his wrestlers and their desire to keep fighting.
“I want to see a don’t give up attitude, to see them bounce back when they get knocked down,” Alvarado said. “It’s also about doing the extra things, being early, staying on top of grades, being respectful.”
The program uses the cafeteria for its practices. Despite the limits, the program hasn’t stopped pushing forward.
“We’re doing some big things and building a culture because without culture, you don’t have anything,”

Alvarado said. “We want to build this program up for the long term. The kids have put a lot of work in this summer and now it’s time to see it pay off. We’re on the right path.”

Panthers reload and are ready to succeed

“We built a tough schedule so that we’d be battle tested, and we felt good going into the district tournament. We had an experienced team. It was tough seeing it end.”

Milton was back on the court last Wednesday night in a preseason game with Navarre, its first taste of live action this season, and Belden likes the team he has but knows building experience will be key to its success.

“We’ve reloaded with a lot of talent. We’re just in a position of inexperience. It’s a matter of us building chemistry and working hard,” Belden said.

CJ McKinley and Treymar Jones scored 15 points apiece for the Panthers in a 58-55 loss to Navarre.
McKinley is one of the returning players for Milton and believes this team has the pieces in place to be successful.

“Communication is going to be big for us and being good friends off the court will lead to better chemistry on the court,” McKinley said.

It’s also about embracing roles and the Panthers don’t mind sharing the load. Ezekial Crumpton said he and his teammates already do that in practice sessions.

“We’re used to it in practice, subbing in and out of games. We know our roles and we all have to play them well,” Crumpton said.

Belden believes his players’ willingness to embrace their roles will allow for Milton to have depth as an advantage.

“We usually play seven or eight deep, but we’d like to go 10-11-12 deep,” Belden said. “If we accept being great teammates, guys are going to be fresher and have more energy. It takes time to get there, but once we get the experience, the sky is the limit.”

Along with McKinney and Jones, Crumpton, Matt Farrar and Keith Gardner will also be counted on to help lead the way for the Panthers.

This is a group that’s ready to start playing games that count.

“This time of year you are practicing a lot. You get tired of going against each other,” Belden said. “These guys are competitive. I’m ready to see what they do against other teams.”

One of the keys is how that competitiveness translates from practice to game day.

“We practice at 7:30 in the morning. A lot of guys look good at 7:30 a.m.,” Belden said. “We have to see who looks good at 7:30 p.m. We want to see who can take what you do in practice and translate it to the game.”

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