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  • Northwest Florida Daily News

    Four-Peat: The unlikely story of how Niceville track and field kept its FHSAA crown

    By Seth Stringer, Northwest Florida Daily News,

    2024-05-21

    There's a drill at Niceville that track and field sprinters know all too well: The hare and the hound.

    As Robert Stith tells it, a female teammate represents the hare and is given a 10-second headstart. Her male teammate is the hound, tasked to catch her by the allocated distance. The punishment for the one who fails their task is dreaded: bear crawls, pushing sleds, etc.

    On Saturday in the FHSAA Class 4A 4x400-meter relay, Stith was the hound in the third leg. Teammate Dawson Isbell assumed the role of hare in the final leg. There'd be no punishment afterward, only state gold.

    Down 64-62 to Columbus in the boys team standings heading into that final event, the quartet did the improbable and outran their seventh-place seeding to a second-place finish, finishing ahead of third-place Columbus and vaulting the Eagles into a shared state title.

    This is the story of how a team from a town of 16,000-or-so people became the first boys track and field program in the Sunshine State to win four straight team state titles. By a hair ... er, hare.

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    Throwsville

    Before dissecting the dramatic finish, a look into Emily Webb's throwing program is warranted. Because without it, there's no Niceville dynasty.

    A school-record 18 throwers qualified for this year's state championship meet, and the message from the outset was clear: "I told our kids it wasn't about going out and hitting crazy PRs. It was about placement for the program," she said.

    A part of that was the pressure of a 1-2 finish in the javelin, just like in 2023 with Aidan Broussard and Raiden Lafortune, and just like the two years prior to that. Defending champ Broussard held up his end of the bargain, the University of Florida-bound senior clearing 193 feet and 9 inches for back-to-back golds and a much-needed 10 team points. But multi-sport star Landon Isbell entered the final throw in eighth.

    He'd never competed at state before. Never even picked up a javelin until January.

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    "I knew I had to get at least second for us to win a team title," said Landon, a star wide receiver with a baseball background. "It was kind of nerve-wracking, I'm not gonna lie. I was standing there in the runaway needing to get all I could out of this throw."

    That he did.

    "When they announced 57 meters, we all kinda blacked out," said Webb. "That's a two-foot PR."

    The throw of 187-1 was easily good for a silver medal and those coveted eight team points. Reinforcing the depth, Oliver Disch threw 179-2 for fifth place, and another four points to bring the event total to 22.

    Tack on another 13 points In the discus, where defending state champ Terrance Power finished with bronze (six points), Charlie Perkins placed fifth (four points) and Caleb Hickey sixth (three points).

    "All three of those boys showed up and PR'd in the biggest meet of their life," Webb said. "The cool things is we had 18 throwers qualify, so there were all 15 of the rest of them cheering on the discus."

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    Doing that math, that's 35 of the 70 points right there. But a state title title doesn't happen without Nathaniel "NuNu" Krider finishing eighth in the shot put with a throw of 50-2¾.

    "Nunu was disappointed, but I told him that one point could make all the difference. And it did," Webb said.

    Vaulting up the leaderboard

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    Adding credence to Niceville's past declarations of being a "field and track" team, a term even emblazoned on T-shirts, the Eagles tacked on another 12 points in the pole vault behind Van Carter's state gold.

    A runner-up a year ago, the Army West Point-bound senior edged Miramar's Elijah Smith and Nease's Matias Masony by clearing 14-9 for first and the 10 points that come with it.

    "Van literally delivered for his brothers," Niceville head coach Todd Brigman said. "He's dealt with a hamstring issue all year, so he had to make adjustments. He jumped from a six-step approach at districts to an eight-step at regionals to a 10-step at state that led to him being a state champion. He's with a special group of brothers to win it all."

    Teammate Caleb Hurtado cleared 13-9¼ to finish seventh and earn the Eagles another two points.

    'Go be a dog and eat'

    Even with all the field success, Niceville entered the 4x400m relay in second place. That included a third-place finish in the 4x100m relay and a silver medal in the 800 by Dawson Isbell, who would wind up being the top-points getter for Niceville with 22.

    But none of that lends to a state title without Stith – a sprinter who normally competes in the 100 and 200 – being alternated into the 4x400m relay at regionals and adding an X-factor to a crew seeded seventh entering the race.

    Referencing the hare and the hound drill, Brigman informed his relay team of the implications and specifically told Stith, "Go be a dog and eat."

    After Sawyer Buelow and Anthony Ruether's first two legs, Niceville trailed in third behind first-place Columbus and second-place Southridge. Enter Stith, who passed Columbus and gave Dawson a 10- to 15-foot cushion for second place.

    "Robert ran the fastest time I've ever had on my stopwatch, like a 47.1 which is insane," Brigman said. "He'd had turf toe for half the season, but I wasn't going to have my second-fastest guy not on the relay. I told him beforehand that he's a rocket ship that's never been allowed to blast off. I told him, 'You're going to do something crazy.' "

    As he waited for the final pass of the baton, Dawson had the best seat in the house.

    "I knew he was fast, but no one knew how fast he was," Dawson said. "With 150 feet left I thought he was gonna die, but he just never quit."

    Credit the hare and the hound drill.

    "I was really nervous to run the 400," added Stith. "I didn't know what I was gonna do. ... I had to put in my all and chase down Columbus."

    But 400 meters remained. Columbus' Adrian Cardero, the state champ in the event after running a 46.73, was in pursuit of Dawson.

    "I heard him breathing," Dawson said. "I knew he fast he was and that he was really strong in the second half."

    Cardero predictably gained ground, but Dawson's cushion was never in doubt. Niceville edged Columbus at the finish line, 3:13.65 to 3:13.80. Not only did Niceville have a school record and three-second PR, the Eagles had made up the two-point deficit for a 70-70 tie atop the 4A leaderboard.

    "I thought I was really slow, but I looked up at clock and was like, 'This is awesome,' " Dawson said.

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    "The hare and the hound is all about running with a purpose, situational running and feeling that adrenaline you only experience in a race," Brigman said. "Obviously it paid off there. He had the state champion on his heels. He was the hare and he wouldn't be caught."

    Meanwhile Niceville remains the gold standard.

    "This (state title) was different in that we were able to support the throwers and field events," Brigman said. "I am one of the running coaches, so for the 4x100m relay to get third and the 4x400m relay to get second and for Dawson, the man of the hour, to get second in the 800, it just represents that we're more than our throwers and other field events.

    "When I came here 10 years, we took one boy to state. We were a long-distance program. So I had to build a staff of talented adults with certain skill sets who went to clinics and committed to being better coaches. It started in the weight room and with the relationships with the athletes, and now the four straight state titles for the boys and girls state title is proof of how great this staff is. It's proof of how great this program and its athletes are."

    This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Four-Peat: The unlikely story of how Niceville track and field kept its FHSAA crown

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