One observer's wrap-up of the year in athletics
The year in sports, to borrow that ageless cliché, was full of the thrill of victory and agony of defeat, as county athletes demonstrated, once again, that they can compete with the best statewide.
In no particular order, or volume, some of the highlights, at least from one observer’s vantage point.
The Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School football team was, literally, Blountstown away from another trip to the state Class 1A semifinals.
The Tiger Sharks finished 8-4.
But the hurdle between that and the final four was Blountstown, which Port St. Joe met twice in what proved typically titanic struggles between the two rivals.
Blountstown escaped with a 3-0 regular season win, the winning field goal coming in the final minutes of a brutal defensive struggle.
That put the Tiger Sharks on a path to decide the region in Blountstown, with the Tigers pulling away late in another tight contest and, ultimately, reaching the state title game.
Port St. Joe’s season was rendered all the more remarkable by two factors.
Due to changes in how playoffs are decided among Florida high schools, the Tiger Sharks were forced to field a schedule on the fly with no district or otherwise required games.
As a result, the Tiger Sharks played just two Class 1A opponents, Blountstown and county rival Wewahitchka.
The Tiger Sharks had to reach into Alabama, and an independent school power, to fill out the schedule which also included regional power Tallahassee North Florida Christian.
Additionally, health issues put Head Coach John Palmer on and off the sidelines and practice field over the last quarter of the season, with the program eventually turning for administrator and former assistant Josh Dailey to take the reins.
Final Four redux
What a run by the Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School softball team.
Over the past two years, the Lady Gators have posted a 43-11 record, spent much of one season as the top-ranked team in the state and have reached the state semifinals each season.
Only to have those seasons end in heartbreak.
If the 2016 loss, surviving weather and extra innings to win a semifinal before defending champion Chiefland won another title behind one huge inning, was tough, 2017 may have been tougher.
Up 1-0 entering the final inning against, yep, Chiefland, the Lady Gators and ace Brianna Bailey allowed a pair of runs in the final half-inning to fall in brutal fashion.
The Lady Gators lost Head Coach Judith Husband after the season, but Tony Price, an assistant, brings continuity to a squad that, frighteningly enough for the rest of Class 1A, returns nearly intact and with two years of heartbreak as fuel.
Points? You said points?
That is how the Florida High School Athletics Assocation decided it would determine state football playoffs in the smaller classifications.
By assessing, and assigning point values, to wins, the record of opponents over which those wins came and do so in a manner that required an advanced accounting degree to understand, the FHSAA changed the way schedules and playoff brackets are filled.
The most significant example was the elimination of districts; no longer would there be a set number of games which would determine playoff seeding.
Wewahitchka and a host of other Panhandle small schools came together to form a conference, at least bringing some scheduling certainty.
For Port St. Joe, a traditionally tough opponent, the situation was far more dicey.
Port St. Joe was able to schedule just two regular season games against Class 1A teams and ended up reaching into Alabama, and a traditional independent school power, as well as region power Tallahassee North Florida Christian just to find 10 games.
After 2018, when all contracts are up for another cycle, it figures to get no easier for Port St. Joe.
Beach Blast Triathlon tossed out
After more than 12 years, and nearly twice that many events, the Beach Blast Triathlon was unceremoniously shown the door in Gulf County.
The Board of County Commissioners balked at issuing a permit for event organizers to use renovated Veterans Memorial Park in Beacon Hill for their fall race, sowing ill will and drawing pointed remarks from both sides of the dispute.
Organizers believed the event was singled out, noting a major fishing tournament held its captain’s party in the same space they sought.
The triathlon, however, found a home in Mexico Beach, where the spring triathlon had taken place due to construction at Veterans Memorial Park.
The sudden changes reduced the field, which typically reached 200 athletes, and the turnout, which typically numbered in excess of 300.
The fate of the Beach Blast is unknown as 2018 arrives.
Final Four redux (almost)
A year after reaching the state Class 1A semifinals, the Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School girls’ basketball team had a run to a return stopped one step short.
After whipping Holmes County in last year’s Region 1-1A final on the road, the Lady Tiger Sharks had Holmes County return the favor in 2017, visiting Port St. Joe for the region final and coming away with the win.
Port St. Joe beat Holmes County in the District 2-1A tournament just the week before.
The Lady Tigers Sharks finished the season 22-7, their third-straight 20-win season and again received a first-team all-State performance from Teiyahna Hutchinson, who filled up stat sheets each night en route to her third all-state selection.
Hutchinson was also, again, a candidate for Class 1A Player of the Year honors.
As 2017 ended, the Lady Tiger Sharks were unbeaten after losing to Niceville to open the regular season, their winning streak at nine.
The Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School boys’ soccer team was at times dominating, and always competitive, during the two seasons that finished and began during the 2017 calendar year.
For the 2016-17 season, the Tiger Sharks finished 18-4-1 and reached the Region 1-1A quarterfinal where they were eliminated by, yes, a private school.
In fact, the remarkable aspect to Port St. Joe’s run into the state playoffs is that it was the last public school standing in the Class 1A boys’ soccer playoffs.
And, the Tiger Sharks, have kicked the ball right up where they left it, unbeaten thus far in the 2017-18 season, entering the Christmas break having pitched shutouts the past six games.
In addition to that stingy defense, anchored by keeper Joel Bogeart, the Tiger Sharks have a striker in Marlon Lopez, depth and veteran leadership.
The program also realized a first, fielding a junior-varsity team.
Another striking factor to consider: the bulk of the team is due to return for the 2018-19 season.
Certainly, it is little surprise when the coaching carousel spins in high school athletics.
And, among Gulf District Schools, the carousel performed some turns, early and late in the year.
Shortly into the new year, Loren Tillman departed the Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School football team to take over the program at Springfield Rutherford.
In Tillman’s three years, the Gators steadily improved, battling for the district during a 5-5 2016 campaign.
Veteran coach Bobby Johns, most recently with Vernon High, stepped in as head coach and athletic director, changed the offensive and defensive schemes, battled a thin roster and had the Gators playing their best football as the season closed.
Wewahitchka also lost the head softball coach Judith Husband, who departed to work with the Florida Department of Education in Tallahassee.
In the past two years with Husband at the helm, the Lady Gators went 43-11, reached the Class 1A Final Four each season and, save for a single inning against powerhouse Chiefland each year, could have come away with two titles.
Assistant Coach Tony Price takes the reins of the program, with the Lady Gators returning nearly their entire roster for another push to the state title.
While those were fairly smooth transitions in Wewahitchka, the one for the Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School baseball program? Not as much.
With coach Josh Dailey moving into administration, the Tiger Sharks sought a new coach and found Scott Hall out of Williston, who arrived with a pair of recent state titles in his pocket.
Hall also assumed the duties as defensive coordinator for the football team and was, temporarily, named the sideline head coach as John Palmer tussled with health issues.
However, Hall did not finish the football season, his probationary contract as a teacher with the district terminated in early November.
The fit, district officials said, was just not right.
The school board approved the hire of a new coach this month and he will report to the school early next year.
Running to a first
Any program first becomes an automatic highlight of any year in sports.
For 2017, we present the Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School girls’ cross country team.
The Lady Tiger Sharks notched their first-ever district title, winning the District 2-1A meet at the St. Joseph Bay Golf Club, and following that up with a ninth-place finish at the Region 1-1A meet, just out of the running to qualify for state.
As impressive as that performance, it came as the two key Port St. Joe runners were dealing with nagging injuries as the season came to a close.
Two things worth noting here: the Port St. Joe boys were second at district and the Port St. Joe girls also won the district track and field meet in April
Trials in the pros
2017 was not kind for two local athletes made good, a let down after a 2016 that, for one weekend, saw both of them playing in professional sports stadiums barely 90 miles apart.
But Calvin Pryor, the former first round draft pick of the New York Jets, found the organization soured on him, not picking up the fifth year of his rookie contract and drafting safeties, Pryor’s position, in the first two rounds of the draft.
Pryor was traded to Cleveland, the worst team in the league, before being released after a training camp fight with a teammate.
He ended up with Jacksonville, a surprise playoff team, but spent much of the season on injured reserve.
He is a free agent at the end of the season.
Roman Quinn, the former second round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies, continued to be hampered by injuries, which had cut short his, at-the-time, electric call-up to the big club in late 2016.
When he was on the field he continued to tantalize with his speed, surprising pop and contact at the plate, but he spent the vast majority of the season on the sidelines with an elbow injury.
One of the goals in high school sports is to provide a potential platform for student-athletes to trade in athletic gifts for continuing their education.
Athletes signing scholarships is just one, but an important one, measuring stick for the performance of high school athletic programs.
District high schools measured up.
From Port St. Joe High School, Ethan Sander (baseball), Halie Jasinski (basketball) and Marshall Sweet (football) all transitioned to the next step.
And during a special celebration at Wewahitchka High School, Chase Roper (football), Blake Harrison (football), Cecily Hale (softball), Chester Quick (football), Trayquan Tiller (football) and Elijah Sarmiento (cross country) all realized their dreams of a college and a continuation of their athletic careers.
Lady Gator softball standout followed suit come fall.