With the calendar turning over to 2020, the Daily News sports desk takes a look back at the Top 10 stories of the past year.
Since Christmas ended just a week ago, the internet and social media have been rife with reflection. More so than usual I’d argue.
Such is life when the calendar turns not only from one year to the next, but also to a brand new decade — one even Marty McFly hasn’t visited yet. Now there’s a scary thought.
But a healthy amount of reflection can be beneficial. The good, the bad, the cherished memories and the regrets all serve to build better people and — as it pertains to the Emerald Coast sports scene — better athletes.
2019 was a year to remember. Crestview’s basketball team opened the year with a state title and UWF football bookended it with a natty. In between, countless state medals were earned and several trophies raised. Former area standouts blossomed at the collegiate and professional levels, while our current crop of studs committed to their own bright futures.
With the lessons we’ve learned from the past decade and beyond, the best is surely yet to come in 2020, but for posterity’s sake here’s a quick look at what made the past year so memorable.
1. Crestview boys basketball wins the 7A title
From the moment Marcus Purcell drained his long 3-pointer to upset Choctaw in the region semifinals with seconds to spare, Crestview was a team of destiny.
En route to their first state championship since 1985, coach Greg Watson and the Bulldogs vanquished Columbia, Lehigh and Dillard in turn to claim the 7A crown at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland, beating each by at least 10 points.
As Coldplay’s “A Sky Full of Stars” serenaded Crestview’s senior-laden lineup, Markus Maloy held up his medal and exclaimed, “It’s real, baby. It’s real!”
That it was.
2. UWF football caps magical run with a national championship
Two years ago, the West Florida football team shocked the country by making it to the Division II National Championship in just its second season with a program.
That momentum alone could have carried the team into the next decade, but the Argos decided to double down in December.
After sneaking into the postseason with an at-large bid, UWF trekked all across nation, knocking off No. 16 Wingate, No. 1 Valdosta State, No. 6 Lenoir-Rhyne and No. 2 Ferris State to set up a meeting with No. 4 Minnesota State in McKinney, Texas, where redshirt freshman Austin Reed torched the Mavericks for an NCAA-record 523 passing yards and six touchdowns in a 48-40 victory.
3. Niceville football’s resurgence
To be clear, the Eagles never truly went away, racking up 21 wins and three more playoff trips in coach John Hicks’ final three seasons, but each year passed without a playoff win.
When Hicks retired and Niceville hired Grant Thompson in February, however, the Eagles alumnus quickly reasserted the standard was still the standard.
“We have to push for the state title,” he said. “The community wants that and expects that. That’s what Niceville does — competes for state titles.”
In his first year at the helm, Thompson delivered with 12 straight wins, three shutouts and a Region 1-7A finals appearance, Niceville outscoring foes 404-138 along the way and producing three Players of the Year in quarterback Will Koch, defensive lineman Logan Schaeffer and linebacker Aidan Dark.
4. Baker football makes fifth straight Final Four appearance
Death, taxes and the Gators making the Final Four.
Behind 2,485 all-purpose yards from junior running back Joe Brunson and a defense that surrendered just 13.8 points per game, Baker rolled into the postseason having won its 38th straight regular season game and didn’t stop until it made it to a fifth straight 1A state semifinal game.
Under coach Matt Brunson’s watchful eye, Baker’s 2020 senior class won 50 of 54 games, advanced to the Final Four every year and made the state championship in 2016 and 2018.
Now that’s a legacy.
5. Navarre, Niceville’s Bryant bring home weightlifting crowns
Behind five podiums and two individual state champions in seniors Josh Carter and Jordan Jefferson, Navarre took home its first state weightlifting title this past April at Arnold High School. The Raiders totaled 25 points, edging just past second-place Spruce Creek.
Defending his title at 219 pounds, Carter totaled 705 pounds between the bench and the clean and jerk, and Jefferson dominated in the unlimited class with 795 pounds, besting the second-place total by 80 pounds.
Not to be outdone, Niceville’s Melaina Bryant, then a sophomore, dominated the 199-pound division at the 2A state tournament in February. Her 210-pound bench led to a 390-pound total, 25 pounds clear of Sunlake’s Antionette Farmer for Niceville lifting’s first state title.
6. Niceville pole vaulters Kish, Babin claim state gold
This past May, Niceville’s Maddy Kish, then a senior, successfully defended her 3A pole-vaulting championship at the Florida High School Track & Field State Championships at Hodges Stadium in Jacksonville, and teammate Kobe Babin followed suit, winning his first 3A crown in the pole vault just minutes later.
The only girl in Niceville history with an individual gold medal, Kish scratched on her first attempt of the afternoon before turning in an all-time performance. She cleared 10 feet, 4 inches on her second jump and scratched only twice more in her final six attempts.
Kish was the only vaulter in the 3A classification to clear 12 feet, 3 1/2 inches.
Babin’s medal was more difficult to come by. Where Kish had blown her competition away, Babin was locked in a duel with an old rival: Leon senior Sebastian Campo. Away from the pit, the two are friends. In the pit, it’s every vaulter for himself, and the two had gone vault for vault all morning.
The state championship came down to 15 feet, 9 inches. Campo scratched.
7. FWB tennis duo completes perfect season
It was a season to remember.
Frankie Muldowney and Tomas Pejanovic, then upperclassman at Fort Walton Beach High School, were unstoppable on the tennis courts, dominant in every sense of the word.
Their towering 6-foot-4 and 6-2 frames delivering booming serves, crisp groundstrokes and magnificent volleys, Muldowney and Pejanovic finished their doubles season undefeated, capping the year with 6-1, 6-2 victory against the Venice duo of Ryan Bajakar and Benjamin Zipay in May for the 3A state doubles title — the first in program history — without dropping a single set.
8. NWF State coach Steve DeMeo steps down
We all knew it had to happen eventually. Steve DeMeo was always destined for greener pastures.
After six seasons in Niceville, DeMeo, the incomparable head coach of the Northwest Florida State College men’s basketball team, accepted an assistant coaching position this past May at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, under coach Mike Anderson.
In his six years in Niceville, DeMeo compiled a 170-27 record, leading the Raiders to five straight Panhandle Conference titles, four region titles (2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019) and a national championship in 2015.
9. The FHSAA’s RPI system shifts the football landscape
It was touch-and-go there for a bit, but the FHSAA’s new RPI playoff seeding system seems to be working. Five teams from the Daily News’ coverage area — Baker, Crestview, Freeport, Niceville and South Walton — made the postseason this past November.
Of the 10 squads in our area, only Navarre (6-4) and Walton (6-4) had to stay home with winning records.
The RPI formula is based on only three factors — winning percentage, opponents’ winning percentage and opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage (.35 x WP) + (.35 x OWP) + (0.30 x OOWP).
10. Guarachi advances at U.S. Open
Alexa Guarachi finally pulled down that elusive Grand Slam win.
After five straight first-round exits, the Miramar Beach native and partner Bernarda Pera defeated Eri Hozumi and Makoto Ninomiya 6-1, 6-7 (4), 6-2 in August at Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows.