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December 12, 2013
Class 7A - the rematch: Dwyer and Niceville
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THE OUTLOOK -- Niceville and Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer will meet in the title game for the second time in four years to decide this year's Class 7A state champion.
Dwyer won the 4A title in 2009 with a 42-14 win over the Eagles, its first state football title in school history, so both teams are seeking their second state title.
Niceville (13-1), which defeated Osceola last Friday on a field goal with seven seconds left to advance, won its first state title 25 years ago.
Last week, Dwyer defeated East Lake, 31-24 (OT), in the state semifinals in a match-up of the top two teams in Class 7A. They also had to defeat defending state champion St. Thomas Aquinas in the regional finals.
Although the Panthers (14-0) had gotten to the state semifinals in five of the past six seasons, this is just the second time they have reached the championship game during that run.
"This will be our third trip and the first one we set the state record for the most points given up in a game and that was a learning experience for us," said Dwyer coach Jack Daniels, who in his early 30s at the time said he was not ready for that experience. "To get to this game is such a big deal and so hard to do because you don't know if you will ever get back."
Following the embarrassing 77-14 loss to Venice for the 5A crown in 2000, Daniels approached the game in 2009 completely different than his first trip.
"I realized that this opportunity may not come again and we treated it like a business deal," he explained. "That's how we're going to treat it this weekend. We know we're fortunate to be here."
This year's Dwyer team is led by quarterback Daniel Parr, who has over 2,000 yards passing with 20 TDs and only three interceptions. He has several talented receivers, but his main target is Johnnie Dixon.
The four-star prospect has played his best football lately with nine catches for 249 yards and four touchdowns in his last two playoff games. He currently lists his top three as Alabama, Miami and Ohio State.
"Back then they were more run-oriented and handed it off to (Matt) Elam. Now, they throw the ball a little more to Dixon and a couple of the other receivers. They're just as strong, but just in a different way," noted Niceville coach John Hicks. "Defensively, they look very similar to 2009."
On the other hand, the Eagles are more of a run-oriented team as they run the ball almost twice as much as they throw it. Tayjon Culley leads the team in rushing with 1,102 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Niceville has a pretty good receiver too in Tyre McCants, who has caught 50 passes for 705 yards and eight touchdowns. The senior, who is one of four players to average over 14 yards per reception, has offers from Louisville, USF and Florida Atlantic.
Quarterback Ashton Hooker missed three games this season due to a broken hand, but when he returned in the first round of the playoffs he led Niceville to a 62-14 win over Tallahassee Leon. The senior can beat teams with his arm or legs, accounting for 2,603 total yards and 24 scores.
"After Ashton broke his hand, we went through a spell there where we had a hard time scoring many points," said Hicks. "But now he's back and we're back in rhythm. He does a great job of getting the ball to the right person and making good decisions."
Since Niceville's only loss in early November without Hooker, the Eagles are averaging 42 points per game.
"It's a different Niceville team than we saw in 2009," said Daniels. "They're more of a spread team. They've got a really solid running back, but I think their quarterback is the key to their team and makes their offense go."
Despite the distance, Niceville will bring a huge crowd to Orlando with as many as 4,000 fans expected. That will help. But the key will be to try and slow down a Dwyer offense that has scored 31 points or more in every game this season and is hungry for another state title.
"I would characterize our team as tough," added Daniels. "We're senior-heavy and we have playmakers who can score at any time. It's just a great group to coach."
EDITOR'S NOTE: - Recruiting analyst Mike Singer contributed to this report