Prior to the season, Navarre's first-year coach Jay Walls felt he had something special in the cornerback duo of Nick Benton and Elijah Appel.
To what extent, though, was still uncertain.
As much promise as the two players showed in the spring and summer, nobody could have envisioned the level at which they would play this year.
Benton and Appel have been the best cornerback tandem in the area -- if not the entire Panhandle.
And they're a major reason the Raiders (12-1) are playing host to the No. 1-ranked Gainesville Purple Hurricanes (13-0) at 7:30 tonight at Bennett C. Russell Stadium in the Class 6A state semifinals.
The matchup took on a national scope this week when Gainesville was elevated to No. 16 in ESPN's 25 Football Power Rankings and No. 25 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 rankings.
"At first, I had no idea we'd play this well, but once we started making plays, I had confidence," Appel said. "I think in the kickoff classic, we shut down those good receivers at Milton and that gave us confidence.
"My confidence built up over the season, shutting down more and more receivers. Midway through the season, I knew we were on a roll."
The Raiders have faced some of the best receivers in the area this year, and have been up to the task. Tonight, it's another tough test in the form of Gainesville wideout Chris Thompson, who has verbally committed to Florida.
"We like the challenge," said Benton, who leads the Raiders with five interceptions and 20 pass breakups. "It brings us attention as a unit. There's possession receivers, fast receivers, tall receivers -- we've seen them all this year.
"(Milton wide receiver) Isaiah Jones was just all three of those in one. He's definitely the best receiver I've played in my high school career. Going against Isaiah, I don't think I'll see a receiver better than him the rest of the playoffs. I think it's given me confidence that I can play against any receiver they can throw at me."
Jones is ranked as the No. 150 prospect in the country and has verbally committed to Florida State. The Raiders -- due in large part to the play of Benton and Appel -- held Jones and South Alabama verbal pledge Dejon Funderburk to less than 100 yards receiving in the Region 1-6A semifinal.
"They're both smart kids, both physically gifted kids," Walls said. "They can really run. They're really strong kids for their size, especially Nick. He's pound-for-pound the strongest kid on our team. He bench presses over 300 pounds, clean and jerks over 300 pounds; they're both in the 4.4, 4.5 range. They have all the tools."
Part of Benton and Appel's success this year stems from the fact they go head-to-head every day in practice with one of the top receivers in the state in Jordan Leggett.
Leggett is verbally committed to Clemson and has 53 catches for 904 yards.
"We've always had a high-powered offense in the receiving corps, so we gain a lot of experience covering those receivers," Benton said. "We feel like we can cover any receivers after going against ours."
Benton and Appel, along with the rest of the Raiders' defense, will face another stiff test against the top-ranked Purple Hurricanes.
"They're obviously a good team," Walls said. "They have good size. They're very multiple offensively, formation-wise with motion and shifts. They run the ball well. Their O-line executes well. Their receivers are good. Their quarterback is really accurate in throwing the ball.
"The running backs are as good as those two from Columbia. I would compare Gainesville closely to Columbia."
One thing that may be in Navarre's favor tonight, besides home-field advantage, is the underdog role. The Raiders have made their season by continually proving people wrong.
"I think because of Gainesville's ranking and being undefeated, I know they have some guys that are big-time prospects and players," Walls said. "So, I'm sure they're favored by most, and that's OK. To me, the pressure's on them.
"We know we have to play good. We know that every week. We haven't had a patsy on our schedule, especially in district play. We've just done it; I call them team victories. ... Sometimes our defense has to carry us. Sometimes our offense has to carry us. Sometimes, special teams has to come through. We've won many games that way, coming up with a team victory."