This year’s Nease Panthers football team accomplished something it had not done in eight years, after defeating the Tocoi Creek Toros 47-21 to win their first district title since 2015.
The district title clinched a playoff spot for the Panthers (7-3, 3-0) and it was a special way to end one memorable senior night.
“In the beginning of the year we had a lot of injuries and we battled through that for a couple weeks there,” senior quarterback Bryce Frick said.
According to Frick, the turning point for the team and for himself was during the Fletcher game, when his number was called, and the offense responded with a productive second half despite the loss.
When he transferred from Ponte Vedra to Nease this year, he had hoped for the opportunity, and once it came he continued to grow with each week and was a major reason why the Panthers ended the year with a district title for the trophy case.
“I just kind of ran with my opportunity and the team just rallied behind me as well, and we’ve really been on a roll,” Frick said.
It helps that Frick has plenty of playmakers surrounding him as well, including fellow senior Cam Smith, who is one of the players who battled injury earlier this season but had stood out on senior night with five touchdowns, including four on the ground against the Toros.
One of the members of the offensive line helping pave the way in the running game was senior Riley Mariani, who was one of four seniors along the front five.
It was the second straight emotional victory for the Panthers, after they defeated rival Ponte Vedra a week ago, which set themselves up for a shot at the title.
As a senior, Mariani knew that it was up to them as leaders to make sure the team remained focused on the prize and understood that the win over the Sharks would mean even more if they could finish the job.
“It was definitely something that we had to lock-in about and make sure everyone knew how important this one tonight was,” Mariani said.
He has been part of some memorable teams during his four years at Nease, but even the 2021 squad that made it to the regional finals did not win their district, so it makes it even more special.
“It really means a lot,” Mariani said. “These bonds that we have is something that came together, not just this year, but we’ve been developing it for a long time now.”
For two weeks in a row now, the Panthers have held their own defensively and that is something they believe can be key during an attempt at a deep playoff run.
“There are ups and downs in each game, but in the end we’re finding ways to come away with the ‘w’, and that’s all that matters, senior defensive back Cade Papineau said. “We’ve just been locked in and really been out there playing for each other.”
Next up for the Panthers is the first round of the Class 4S state playoffs, and they will find out who their opponent is on Sunday when the FHSAA releases the postseason brackets.
The district title was the sixth in the program’s 43-year history.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet but knowing that the playoffs are ahead of us is definitely in the back of my mind because we definitely to go even further,” Frick said.