The Catholic High boys and girls soccer teams are right where they want to be -- primed to win district championships.
Both teams have a near-perfect record in District 1-2A and have earned the No. 1 seed for the district tournament, which Catholic will host this season. The girls start postseason play on Jan. 14. The boys will play in their district tournament a week later on Jan. 21.
"A lot of what has helped us to be successful is the experience and leadership of my players," said Catholic girls coach Breck Smith, whose squad is 16-3-2 overall and 8-1-0 in district play. "I have eight seniors, six of whom start, and with that much experience on the field, you have a lot of kids who are able to help and direct the other players."
The Catholic boys (11-5-1, 9-1) also boast a bevy of veteran players with nine seniors. That experience is crucial not only for success during the regular season, but also for having the maturity it takes to win when it matters most, head coach David Toellner said.
"We've just to got to make sure that we stay mentally focused," said Toellner, who is in his second year as head coach. "And we have to make sure that we play as a unit. That's something I stress a lot is not playing as individuals, but as a team."
That mentality has worked well so far for the Crusaders.
The Catholic boys have outscored district opponents 49-4, and no district opponent has scored more than one goal against the Crusaders this season, including Panama City Bay, which held off Catholic 1-0 on Dec. 14.
One of the biggest challenges the Crusaders' boys face is keeping that momentum going with the holiday break coming just before the postseason begins.
"(Being off for the holidays) definitely plays a factor," Toellner said. "After the players have had about two weeks off, it can be challenging to get them not only physically back to form but also mentally back to form. But we're going to have a few days of practice right after the new year, so we can get back into play and be ready."
The Catholic girls have outrun district opponents 62-0. The only blemish on the Crusaders' district record was a 0-0 tie at Bay.
For them, the holiday break came at a crucial time, allowing players the opportunity to recover from injuries and the wear and tear of playing and practicing on a daily basis.
"We typically come back strong after the holidays," Smith said. "During the regular season, we have up to three games and three practices a week, and the kids aren't used to that kind of regimen. So, being off for the holidays gives the kids time to rest and usually is a big plus for us."
Both teams also have a tradition of postseason success. The boys have won district championships six times in the past eight years and last season finished among the top eight teams in Class 2A. The girls have won titles five of the past six seasons and also advanced to the region finals last year.
"We have the potential to do well, for sure," Toellner said. "It just depends on how the boys play. We're still working on our inconsistency. But I think me being in my second year as a coach has helped a lot because now the players understand where I'm coming from and buy into my coaching style."
When the Catholic girls return from the holiday break, they'll have just three regular-season games left before the district tournament begins. The boys have five regular-season games remaining.
Grueling postseason schedule
When Smith saw the schedule for the girls soccer region tournament, she immediately became concerned.
The way the schedule is set up this season, teams who advance to the region semifinals in their classification will play on Jan. 26. A win there, sends teams into the region championships, which are held just three days later on the 29th.
The turnaround is equally fast for those teams that advance to the state semifinals on Feb. 1. Throw in a couple of road trips, and that's a grueling schedule, especially if Catholic is forced to travel to Jacksonville -- which is more than 300 miles away -- for the region title game. The Crusaders have played Jacksonville Bolles in the region championships for the past five seasons.
"What concerns me most is the dates for the postseason games this season," Smith said. "We're going to be on the road this year (for the region semifinals and finals), and trying to get where we're playing and trying to maintain any momentum that we might have, that's going to be difficult."
* Josh Knight, Washington basketball. The point guard was nearly flawless in a 59-53 overtime win against J.O. Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) in the Wildcat Invitational. Knight scored a team-high 22 points that helped the team rally from a 19-point third-quarter deficit for the victory.
* Shamar Johnson, Pine Forest basketball. Johnson was stellar last week for the Eagles, scoring 19 points in a 61-49 win against Monroe County (Ala.) and 17 points in a 43-42 win against Niceville. Johnson's performances have helped Pine Forest to a 10-0 record.
* Marcus Cole, Escambia Charter basketball. Cole made sure the Bulldogs broke for the holidays on a high note. He scored a game-high 25 points for Escambia Charter in a 59-20 runaway win against Munroe.
* Jayla King, Pine Forest basketball. The senior and University of South Florida commitment helped the Eagles avenge their only loss this season. King scored 21 points and pulled down 16 rebounds in a 49-47 win against Faith Academy (Mobile, Ala.). Faith Academy had beaten the Eagles on Nov. 20.